Stop Worrying, Cyprus Has Already Happened in America


Point. Gasp. Shake your head in disgust.

The world learned two weeks ago that yet another European country is in desperate need of a bailout. The two largest banks in Cyprus, a tiny Mediterranean island situated between Turkey and Lebanon, have been struggling to deal with losses incurred from the writedown of Greek bonds. But, as is well-known by now, to unlock the 10 billion euro bailout offered by the "troika" -- the International Monetary Fund, European Union, and European Central Bank -- Cyprus must come up with somewhere north of five billion euros on its own. And to do this, it's decided to place a levy on uninsured bank deposits.

The island nation's central bank outlined the details of the program on Sunday. Depositors in Cyprus' largest lender will have 37.5% of their deposits above 100,000 euros converted into bank equity -- which presumably will be rendered worthless once the losses are fully absorbed. An additional 22.5% will be "temporarily withheld to ensure the lender meets the terms of its recapitalization." And the remaining 40% will be "temporarily frozen to ensure the lender's liquidity." Taken together, a full 60% of deposits in excess of 100,000 euros have thus begun the ascent to money heaven.

Since the crisis erupted into plain view over the weekend of March 16-17, analysts and commentators have fretted and warned that the same thing could happen in the United States. In the upcoming issue of Forbes, the eponymous Steve Forbes quips, "Don't put it past our politicians to try it in a financial emergency." The conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh said it's a "legitimate fear to have." And a "news commentator" even went so far as to proclaim, "not only can it happen here, it is happening here."

While I'd like to say that opinions like this are wrong, the reality is that the loss of deposits isn't a completely foreign concept. A pertinent example of this was the FDIC-backed bailout of IndyMac Bancorp five years ago. As The New York Times recently noted, "IndyMac was about the size of the Bank of Cyprus, and its depositors ended up taking nearly as big a loss -- 50 percent on deposits above the levels insured by the [FDIC]."

At the same time, there are two important distinctions that are worth keeping in mind. First, since the IndyMac bailout, the FDIC has raised its deposit insurance to $250,000, or more than twice the $100,000 limit before the crisis. And second, thanks to a heighted regulatory and capital regime, banks here have become increasingly (albeit involuntarily) risk averse -- the JPMorgan Chase London Whale scandal being a notable exception to this.

Take the capital base of the nation's largest banks. The Tier 1 capital ratio at Bank of America went from 6.9% of total assets at the end of 2007 to 12.9% at the end of last year. Over this same time period, Citigroup's ratcheted up from 7.1% to 14.1%, Wells Fargo's from 7.6% to 11.8%, and U.S. Bancorp from 8.3% to 10.8%. According to JPMorgan's obviously biased CEO Jamie Dimon, "I think all banks will have too much capital in two and a half years. And they're not going to know what to do with it."

The lesson to take from this is simple. Are uninsured deposits always at risk? Yes -- though, to reemphasize the point, this only applies to deposits in excess of $250,000 at each institution. But should you be concerned given the precedent set by Cyprus? No -- at least no more so than you were before, as banks in the United States are arguably safer now than they've been for decades.

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