Thursday, March 21, 2013

Situation in Cyprus Still Unresolved; European, US Stocks Hit

If Americans could pull themselves away from their TV sets and the NCAA tournament for a few moments, some of them might come to the realization that what's happening in Cyprus might just have huge global implications in the not-so-distant future.

While the story so far consists of a multitude of moving parts, what is known so far is that Cypriot banks - oversized in relation to the nation's GDP - are in deep, deep trouble and that the "troika" (EU, ECB and IMF) has given the tiny island nation until Monday to come up with a viable plan.

Cyprus has been told it must raise 5.8 billion euros ($7.5 billion) if it is to receive 10 billion euros ($12.9 billion) from its fellow eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.
In the meantime, the banks remain closed, ostensibly to reopen on Tuesday of next week.

Many ATM machines have already run out of cash and one bank (Laiki) has already imposed capital controls, limiting withdrawals to 260 euros ($340) per person to conserve its dwindling funds. Rumors have it that Laiki will be folded into one or two of the other major banks in the nation, even though reported by CNBC, those reports have not been verified by reliable sources. The situation remains fluid with European officials, Russia (whose residents are responsible for the bulk of deposits in Cyprus' banks) and the Cypriot parliament are busy concocting ideas to rescue the banking system and the government, though nothing seems to be working particularly well at the moment.

Possible outcomes for Cyprus are varied and somewhat indecipherable at present, but what is known is that depositors almost certainly will be forced to surrender some of their funds via a tax, or levy, because there aren't enough bondholders in the banks to make up for the shortfall. Normally, those holders of bank debt would be first on the hook, but this situation is different from what has already occurred in Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Nonetheless, whatever happens in Cyprus will have ramifications across Europe and the world. If the troika's plan to tax deposits becomes reality, it will almost certainly cause some degree of bank runs in the aforementioned countries that are already in trouble. The damage done to confidence in the system will be more severe. Banking and finance, largely based upon trust, cannot withstand wholesale looting of depositor accounts, no matter how small or seemingly trivial the amounts. The expectation is that banks are a safe place to park funds and the potential of either not having access to funds or having money appropriated (read: stolen) in order to bail out the bank itself or the government, is not part of the agreement.

Europeans are now looking at events in Cyprus through jaundiced eyes. The crisis is nigh upon four years old and the peripheral countries are still in recession, as is the whole of Europe. To date, all the plans of the EU, ECB and the IMF have amounted to only playing for time, and time is running short, both on the patience of the populaces and the viability of various governments.

The fear is that once the genie of appropriating depositor funds comes out of the bottle, it will be hard, if not impossible, to put back and will likely spread. No matter the eventual deal struck in Cyprus, capital flight is a certainty, the question being from where and to where the money will flow.

There's a certain unfairness about all of it, and a general sense of fear that hit markets this week with a thud. In the US, the damage has been downplayed thus far, but today's losses were the worst of the week and sent the major average to their lowest closes in nearly two weeks.

With the situation still unresolved, the anxiety on Wall Street and in other money centers around the globe is palpable. Unrestrained money printing, QE, low interest rates and other assorted "emergency" measures will not be able to trump a wholesale loss of confidence in the financial system itself, a condition which is likely long overdue.

Naturally, one cannot expect ordinary citizens and businesspeople around to world to immediately and simultaneously catch onto what's really occurring, but word is spreading, and quickly.

A piece of advice to everyone would be to watch one's finances carefully and keep a stash of cash outside the banking system, just in case. After all, it was one of our founding fathers - Benjamin Franklin - who opined, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." And the cure has yet to be found.

Also of note is that traditional "safe havens" - gold and silver - have been appreciating slightly, with today's moves the most significant.

Dow 14,421.49, -90.24 (0.62%)
NASDAQ 3,222.60, -31.59 (0.97%)
S&P 500 1,545.80, -12.91 (0.83%)
NYSE Composite 9,009.66, -71.43 (0.79%)
NASDAQ Volume 1,691,711,000
NYSE Volume 3,571,124,500
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ Advance - Decline: 2138-4254
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ New highs - New lows: 303-28 (stretched)
WTI crude oil: 92.45, -1.05
Gold: 1,613.80, +6.30
Silver: 29.21, +0.395

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