XVIII. Time to move beyond the Cyprus/Germany standoff

In recent days controversy has raged over the relative household and per capita wealth/income of Germans and Cypriots.


When all is said and done it does appear that real median incomes in 2010 in Cyprus and Germany were broadly equal. When equivalised at purchasing power standards median Cypriot incomes may even be considerably higher than those in Germany.


A recent ECB report found that with regard to household wealth German households have much less wealth than Cypriot households, even when adjusted for household size. This is to some extent accounted for by the greater prevalence of home ownership in Cyprus and the rapid rise of property prices on the island.


In contrast house prices have been slow to rise in Germany - partly at an aggregated level due to reunification and depressed prices in the former East Germany. It has also been argued that the strict control of rents in Germany makes rental a more attractive option than home ownership than in other parts of Europe.


Finally, one needs to consider the wealth of Germans in terms of their access to public welfare goods and accumulated wealth in pensions.


Even when all this is taken into account the position of Cypriot households vis-a-vis their German counterparts is striking, and very different from that of other Southern European EU member state households.


Of course this kind of statistical analysis and its findings are anathema to some commentators on the Cyprus crisis and to many Cypriots and manna to the right-wing and populist press in Germany. Getting to the bottom of the issue in such a highly charged and complicated world is difficult.


It would be really useful at this point to able to plot growth, household wealth and indebtedness and median incomes in Germany and Cyprus over the period 1960-2013.


Over most of the last decade growth in Cyprus has been very dynamic - at over 3 per cent a year whilst in Germany the economy has struggled to grow at all. In the same period I would expect to see both a rapid rise in real wages and incomes in Cyprus whilst these indices have flatlined in Germany.


And with household wealth I would expect to see a rapid rise in Cyprus due to both the housing bubble and an increasing stock of saved wealth as Cypriots, unable to access a a reliable welfare system (particularly health) save on a precautionary principle for healthcare and old age (elder poverty in Cyprus is the highest in the EU) even while becoming increasingly indebted as a percentage of both disposable incomes and GDP.


It is ironic that it is only in the last few years that the tables have turned with regard to Cyprus and Germany. Structural reforms and years of wage restraint (so-called internal devaluation) in Germany are now helping to fuel export-led growth despite the strength of the euro. Add to this the lessening burden of German reunification costs - transfers from West to East stacked up to an impressive 1.3 trillion euros.


At the same time the political balance in the EU has shifted and has propelled Germany, however reluctantly, into a position of political dominance. Traditional checks on German power - for example France - are weak and the UK has absented itself from the debate by both its position outside the euro and the ill-advised manoeuvres of the Cameron Conservative party in euro-groupings of the centre-right and right.


In parallel the deepening of the Eurozone crisis has made it increasingly difficult for Germany to hide behind the bland collectvity of the European Commission as its national interests are threatened by the spectre of systemic crisis.


In its domestic politics Angela Merkel has carved out a position that has kept an increasingly sceptical German public onside while extending 'solidarity for solidity' to Eurozone economies in crisis.


The forthcoming September 2013 elections have added a new dynamic to the ordo-liberal orthodoxies that inform German economic policy at home and within the Eurozone. The U-turn performed by the SPD and the Greens from voices of constraint to cheerleaders of a more robust bail in of bank deposit and share/bond holders has ratcheted up the rhetoric.


This has coincided with a hardening position within the International Monetary Fund and the reinvigoration of the influence of its high priests of budgetary rectitude and structural reform under the leadership of Christine Lagarde.


Couple to this the lessons that Europeans and policy-makers at many different levels have been learning about the depth of the crisis, the recklessness of bankers under the sway of cheap credit and mesmerising gains in personal wealth and prestige and the limits of domestic acceptance of bailout burdens in both the polities of those extending and receiving a particular and changing confection of European solidarity.


Cyprus strolled into this toxic mix having tried everything to save it banks and public finances without recourse to the hand proffered by the European Commission (a massive and ruinous bet on Greek bonds using cheap ECB loans, a 2.5 billion euro loan from Russia, raids on its own state controlled industries to keep the cash flow positive, further appeals to Russia and a mission to China).


And it brought with it a particularly toxic brand of offshore finance - the dominance of two banks locked in what looks now like ego-driven and disastrous competition, massive exposure to Greek bad loans and sovereign bonds, a fragile reliance on deposits for liquidity and capitalisation that at the sniff of default were easily withdrawn from the system, and all the accusations of being a tax haven fuelled by Russian money using the island's light-touch regulatory regime to turn around vast flows of corporate and personal wealth - the single fact that stands out here is that until the bailout Cyprus (population 1.1m) was the largest source in the world of foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Russian Federation (population 142m).


By the time Cyprus's elections had run their course and the craven and self-deluded government of Demetris Christofias had been shunted into history the ECB, the European Commission and Germany had run out of patience with their distant south-eastern European neighbour.


This situation was not helped by the resentment and fury that lingered in European Commission and member state circles over what was regarded as Cyprus’s broken promise over a tacit peace-for-accession deal in 2004.


Yes, the bailout and bail in process has been a catalogue of errors but portraying this as Germany giving a good and vindictive 'hiding' to 'tiny Cyprus' is a travesty of a dynamic and nuanced situation. (See for example Professor Andreas Theophanous at the University of Cyprus who characterises the bailout/in as 'an unprecedented attack bordering on robbery.')


Unfortunately the continued revelations that come out of Cyprus on a weekly basis - the accusations of forgiven loans to politicians, the massive withdrawals and transfers of money out of the country on the eve of the bailout (that appear to involve the new President's family) and the Attorney General's apparent instruction to suspend a drunk-driving-without-tax-or-MOT prosecution against his 32 year old son do nothing to dispel a possible image of a banking and governing elite mired in sleaze and corruption.


When questioned on the probity of his action above the Attorney General, Petros Clerides, is reported to have said that he had done nothing wrong by helping out his son because he would have done the same for anyone else’s child.


Of course Germany is no saint. Its regional Landesbankens have been in considerable trouble and it is no stranger to charges of corruption and wrongdoing - the recent plagiarism findings against PhDs in high places is a case in point -  Annette Schavan, Education Minister resigned on this issue in Febuary 2013.


And Germany, despite its ordo-liberal protestations, has broken European financial rules when it has suited. And who is to say that the modality of particular bailouts - for example the protection of German banks exposed to the Irish economy - has not benefitted particular German interest?


But at the end of the day it is Germany that is bankrolling solidarity programmes in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and now Cyprus.


After ten years of tight family and state finances and high unemployment while much of Europe partied it is not surprising that Germans might feel a little pissed-off.


The increasing harshness of the rhetoric in Germany and Cyprus (and amongst the ranks of the Cyprophiles who just cannot get enough of identifying with the little island David's fight against the Teutonic giant/EU bureaucrats/IMF monsters) bodes ill for the future.


The solidification of stereotypes and glib name-calling-as-analysis helps no one (not even as cathartic venting unless it acts as a safety valve that forestalls organised extremism) and reinforces mutual incomprehension and fury.


The need for German domestic expansion and the amelioration of the economic imbalances that lie at the heart of the European project are widely recognised - from US Treasury Secretary Lew to a slew of well-informed economists and commentators - as one possible way out of the mess we are in.


Overcoming the incomprehension and building some understanding of the different social and economic models that are a hallmark of the EU's continued diversity and richness is a task that the vast army of journalists, researchers, bloggers and tweeters concerned with the fate of Cyprus and Europe could and should be applying themselves to.

To: European Banking Fallout