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The Difference Between Inflation and Outright Theft

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My Foolish colleague Morgan Housel's recent analysis compared the proposed Cypriot banking bailout with inflation in making the case that it might not be as ugly as it seems at first blush. While Morgan is absolutely correct that theft by inflation hurts people over time just as assuredly as this bailout will immediately sting depositors, there are a few reasons why this proposed bailout is much worse than inflation.

Indeed, as initially structured, the bailout may very well further destabilize the Cypriot banking infrastructure while simultaneously throwing a monkey wrench into the economy. Inflation, while a sneaky eroder of wealth over time, does neither of those. Harsh medicine may very well be called for, but if so, it needs to be taken out of the bank investors, rather than the depositors, in order to protect the critical foundation of any deposit-based banking system -- the reliability of the deposits themselves.

Outright theft from working stiffs
For one key difference, put yourself in the position of an ordinary Cypriot that works paycheck to paycheck. Your paycheck gets deposited into your bank account, you use the money to pay your bills, and by the time your next paycheck comes around, your account is mostly empty.

All of the sudden, you wake up one morning and find out that you've lost nearly 7% of your account value to this fee. The key problem: Your bills didn't go away. Your mortgage still needs to be paid, and you still need to eat and pay the electric bill. Only with an instant 7% haircut to your account, the money ain't there to pay the bills today. And when you can't pay your bills, the people you owe may not be able to pay their bills, either...

Contrast that with inflation, even a 7% inflation rate. For one thing, one of your biggest expenses -- housing -- likely has fixed costs over locked time periods. That's otherwise known as a rent contract, a fixed-rate mortgage, or even an adjustable-rate mortgage with annual adjustment windows. Sure, rent or an adjustable rate can go up, but only once per contract cycle, and you get an advanced warning that it's coming. That advanced warning gives you time to prepare or adjust.

Additionally, while inflation is usually expressed as a single number, the reality is that not all prices go up uniformly, and consumers often have the ability to substitute other goods to keep their costs down. When your money just disappears because of legislative theft, you don't have much choice to soften the blow.

Destructive to the banking system
Additionally, assuming this bailout plan goes through, it raises a key question: Who in their right mind would ever put another dime in a Cypriot bank account again? Bank depositors' money has been sacrosanct for a reason: With no deposits, banks have nothing to lend out. That's why programs like the U.S. FDIC are so focused on protecting depositors' cash. If depositors pull their cash and cause a run, not only do the banks face an uncomfortable (and potentially devastating) run on the bank, they lose the reserves they need to hold in order to make loans.

The fact is, bank deposits are sacrosanct because runs on the bank destroy banks. If the lines and emptied-out Cypriot ATMs thanks to this pending seizure are any clue, the very act of proposing this theft was enough to launch a bank run over the weekend. Once the "holiday" ends, if this theft of cash is allowed to happen, watch a big chunk of whatever capital is left flee Cyprus as fast as clicks on the Internet will let it.

In contrast, inflation doesn't cause capital flight -- instead, it simply raises the cost of capital. Any rational lender asks for a real return on his or her money, pricing in both expected inflation and an additional time premium for longer-term loans. That time premium is there, in part, to cover the risk of even higher future inflation as the lender's capital is tied up.

Here in the states, for instance, the only reason interest rates are as abysmally low as they are is because the Federal Reserve is actively buying Treasury debt. The Federal Reserve's stated goal with that plan is to get ordinary investors to stop buying Treasuries (because the rates are uneconomically low thanks to the intervention) and start buying riskier assets instead. Absent that program, interest rates would be higher to more adequately compensate lenders for the risks of inflation.

Inflation is bad -- but outright theft is worse
Given a forced choice between inflation and theft, any rational person -- other than the those who stand to benefit from the theft -- would take inflation over outright theft. You can plan around, invest around, adjust your buying habits, or otherwise protect yourself from inflation. When your money is stolen with no notice, you have no way to effectively adapt.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 2:27 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    Good rebuttal. I don't disagree with it. It's a terrible idea in that it sets a bad precedent.

    But the overreaching point of my article was that the alternative would have been worse. I'm not sure you've proven that isn't the case. The alternative was to declare bankruptcy, leave the euro and go back to the cyprus pound.

    In that case, one of two things would have happened to the mortgages you speak of: If it's euro-denominated from non-Cyprus banks, the Cypriot would have 40-60% less left to pay off their mortgage (the estimated devaluation in an exit) -- far less than what's left after the levy. Or, if the mortgage came from a cyprus bank, it would be redenominated into cyprus pounds, but the subsequent drop in real incomes post-devaluation leaves the borrower worse off as well.

    It was a mess either way, but I think there's good reason that the Cypriot government chose a levied bailout over a currency exit.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 2:58 PM, OnTheContrary wrote:

    If the overall inflation rate is in the neighborhood of 7% (and it is, measured by the undoctored CPI maintained at economist John Williams's ShadowStats website) that's an average of all the different inflationary components, across the whole economy, and takes fully into account the fact that many people own their own homes, or have locked-in mortgage rates. The fact is, the average American has been experiencing a 5-10% haircut from the government every year because of inflation, and it doesn't make me feel any better to know (as I do) that the real incomes of some Americans (specifically, those in the top 20%) have been going up during that period, if my real income, which is tied largely to the bogus version of the CPI is going down. Morally, the U.S. Government's policy is the more objectionable one, because it is perpetrated clandestinely and by fraud, while the proposed Cyprus money grab is open and explicit (which is why it's eliciting plenty of pushback).

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 8:04 PM, TMFBigFrog wrote:

    Morgan --

    Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and Cyprus rejected that atrocious bailout.

    This bailout is a laughably small amount. Surely there have to be other options, aside from strealing from depositors. If a haircut is needed, why not take it from the bank investors? As bad as that would be, at least it's "at risk capital", rather than the deposits that are the fundamental foundation of banking.

    A capitaliQ screen says there is some $4 billion in equity in 4 publicly trade Cyprus banks. And the total amount being considered for theft isn't much above that amount... If the banks are salvagable at all, an incredibly dilutive offering of some sort of capital ought to be able to raise enough cash to cover the gap.

    Yeah, the current bank investors lose out. But it's risk capital & not depositors. Capital structures exist for a reason, and the more you mess with the foundation of those structures, the worse they get.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 8:17 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<This bailout is a laughably small amount.>>

    It's a $22 billion bailout in a country with $25 billion in GDP. The equivalent in American would be $14 trillion. I remember the $700 billion TARP bailout. No one called it laughably small.

    <<If a haircut is needed, why not take it from the bank investors?>>

    As others have noted, they've been largely wiped out already. Cypriot stock market has lost 98% of its value in the last five years.

    "Why did Cyprus have to make a grab for depositor cash to rescue its banks? In part because there just wasn't any money left anywhere.The banks don't have much debt, and the island's equity has been wiped out."

    http://www.businessinsider.com/the-cyprus-stock-market-has-l...

    <<A capitaliQ screen says there is some $4 billion in equity in 4 publicly trade Cyprus banks.>>

    Exactly! And those banks need $22 billion in new equity to stay solvent. They were mostly funded by deposits -- that *was* the capital structure. That's why they're taking the hit.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 8:40 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<Surely there have to be other options, aside from strealing from depositors.>>

    Yeah, the other option was to have Germany foot the bill. It said no.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 8:50 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    zing

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 9:48 PM, TMFBigFrog wrote:

    Morgan --

    Nothing changes the fact that the precedent of taking money from depositors will have incredibly destructive ripple effects. Nobody in their right mind puts money in a bank if he or she thinks the money will be subject to theft by legislative fiat.

    The more I read into this, the more I uncover that Cyprus' banking sector is a gigantic part of its economy. That makes it even more imperitive that depositors are protected, as a 'run on the bank' -- the likes of which started when the original proposed deal was announced -- would be even more destructive.

    Digging even deeper, a big chunk of Cypriot bank debt seems to be held by Central Banks, rather than traditional bondholders. They, of all people, ought to realize the destructive precedent of taking out depositors and ought to be willing to broker a deal of some sort...

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 10:07 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<That makes it even more imperitive that depositors are protected>>

    But who's going to protect them? Where is the $22 billion going to come from? Shareholders have been wiped out. Bondholders have been wiped out. Who do you want to write the check? Germany controls the EU's purse, and it refused to put Cyprus's bailout on the back of German taxpayers. So the burden goes to the only place left in Cyprus with money: deposits. You said "Capital structures exist for a reason." Agreed. And this went straight down the capital structure.

    No one is saying this is rainbows and kittens. It's a terrible situation. But it seems that those most critical of the plan can't propose a better solution.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 10:15 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    Re: Bank debt, the two large Cyprus banks have $184 million (with an M) in senior debt and $46 billion in deposits. Given a $22 billion equity hole, it is impossible to stabilize without either a) hitting deposits or b) having someone else write the check.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 10:18 PM, TMFBigFrog wrote:

    The economist has what looks to me like the best take on the issue: http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2013/03/cyprus-bai...

    And seriously -- there are other alternatives, the clearest of which is to default on the debt owed to the central banks and other bondholders, initiate a bankruptcy, and force a rational restructure.

    There may be a rational need to chew through some or all of the deposit money above the insured limits -- as decided during a bankruptcy proceeding -- but the original proposed 'cure' is worse than the disease.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 10:25 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<And seriously -- there are other alternatives, the clearest of which is to default on the debt owed to the central banks and other bondholders>>

    That clears up $184 million, but still leaves a $20.2 billion hole.

    Matt Obrien wrote:

    "Most banks fund themselves with three classes of lenders: junior bondholders, unsecured senior bondholders, and secured senior bondholders, including insured depositors. If the bank goes bust, the secured senior bondholders are at the front of the line for whatever's left, and so on. But Cypriot banks are almost entirely funded with deposits and ELA money. Now, junior bondholders did take €1.4 billion in losses, but there basically no unsecured senior bondholders."

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 10:30 PM, TMFBigFrog wrote:

    Morgan --

    Much Cypriot bank debt has been assumed by central banks rather than by traditional bondholders. If you have CapitalIQ, look up the balance sheet of Cyprus Popular Bank in there. You'll notice a line item of EU 11.1 billion in long term debt, of which EU 10.2 billion is owed to "central and other banks."

    Hence my statement "default on the debt owed to the central banks and other bondholders", not just bondholders.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2013, at 10:40 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    A) That's ELA money for which the ECB holds collateral on, so the bank can't voluntarily default on it if it wanted to.

    B) Even it if could, that would still leave a $10 billion equity hole, which is almost twice as much as the original plan levied on depositors.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 12:22 AM, TMFBigFrog wrote:

    Who said anything about it being "voluntary" default? If it's really that dire that theft from insured depositors is considered a legitimate option, the "involuntary" nature of a default, bankruptcy, and resulting rational restructure should be at least on the table.

    Recall that one of the key points of default and bankruptcy is to force the exchange of debt for assets or equity and control. If there's value in the banks, then bankruptcy, recapitalization, and the resulting change of control should be a legitimate option, and one that is more stabilizing to the banking system than stealing insured deposits.

    If there's no value in the banks, a bailout does nothing but throw good money after bad, in which case the EU should save its cash for the cleanup rather than throw it down the rathole to watch it disappear.

    Recall that the theft of insured deposits was the big "surprise" from the recent negotiations. The run on the banks started as soon as insured depositors learned that their cash was no longer protected. That is a clear indication of the long term consequences of breaking the insured deposit promise. Money walks when it gets scared, and when all the money walks from a bank, the bank fails.

    You know, the longer I watch this saga unfold, the more it looks like a high stakes game of poker between Germany and Russia that Cyprus loses no matter what. The only questions are how Cyprus loses and whether it salvages enough of a reasonable and trustworthy banking framework to have even some chance of a domestic economy after the dust settles.

    A "tell" that this is something of a poker game is this quote from the NYT: "Officials in Germany and at the International Monetary Fund say they did not tell Cyprus to tax insured deposits but that one way or another, the country must come up with the 5.8 billion euros to secure the bailout." ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/business/global/cyprus-rej... ).

    Indeed, from that point down, the NYT article makes it pretty clear that the rejection vote simply opened the discussions with Russia & the EU. The ECB isn't cutting off cash, admitting the Cyprus banks themselves are still solvent -- or at least they were, before the proposed theft led to a bank run. Russia wants to talk. Germany & the IMF signaled that they're open to less-restrictive options...

    In any event, we may have to agree to disagree as we watch the next stages unfold from the sidelines... It has been fun having this discussion with you, my friend, but I need some sleep in order to function at work in the morning.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 11:58 AM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    You are both right in a way. I agree it sets a horrible precedent to levy on depositors. It is simply not acceptable. But Morgan also seems correct about the actual math. Accordingly, somebody else must foot the bill. We are in a stalemate until somebody else agrees to do so. Germany has elections and "bailouts" are unpopular. So around we go. It does serve to highlight that Europe's failure is its failure to have a true transfer union such as we have in the U.S., where states like Alabama are automatically and constantly bailed out year-after-year by big rich states like Texas and California, via national taxation and having a single federal Treasury.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 12:36 PM, ETFsRule wrote:

    "If the overall inflation rate is in the neighborhood of 7% (and it is, measured by the undoctored CPI maintained at economist John Williams's ShadowStats website) "

    That's a common misconception, but in reality Shadowstats does not follow any "undoctored" methods. The sad truth is, SS simply makes up their inflation estimates.

    That is why you will never see any of the raw data or the calculation methods that they use. Dig a little deeper into their website and you will see that there is no data, no methodologies, no equations, and no accountability, anywhere. It seems that their inflation numbers are simply made up out of nowhere.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 1:04 PM, tryan102790 wrote:

    Couldn't agree more....this is a RUN waiting to happen...it may be too late even if the legislation doesn't pass.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 1:09 PM, TMFDiogenes wrote:

    I don't know the answers to all of these questions, maybe Morgan does.

    Wasn't the reason why Cyprus' banks were such a large part of the economy that they were used as offshore accounts, largely by Russian plutocrats/ mobsters? (Otherwise you can't come up with domestic deposits that big.)

    If so, it seems like a huge chunk of the deposits would have been a) foreign, and b) in large accounts.

    In the US at least, the FDIC insures up to a certain threshold. Isn't there a principle that large foreign accounts get hosed at least down to some threshold before smaller domestic accounts start taking haircuts?

    Would that raise enough money? If so, you could just have a large haircut for large or large foreign accounts instead of asking small domestic accounts to take a cut. That would be a) safer and b) fairer than going after previously sacrosanct small domestic accounts in an ad hoc fashion.

    If that wouldn't raise enough money, then the ECB et al or Russia should come up with the money for the sake of self-preservation. If they're going to be penny-wise and pound foolish about it and force deposit holders to take the cut, that's just really stupid, and then agreeing to the EU's terrible dumb idea is probably better than inflation for Cypriots.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 1:37 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    This is all quite fascinating as an exposition of banking system vulnerabilities, and an experiment that we should watch quite closely. I've seen little about exactly how this economy got into the shape it is in (root causes) such that these dire measures were entertained. THAT would be worth its own article. I suspect we would find it all too scary familiar. Things like oh I dont know, wasting govt largesse on things that don't pay off. Funding con schemes and crooked dealings, propping up businesses that the leadership of the business is intent on destroying with bad decisions, nutty ideas and fearsome risks (BAC, Merrill, Bear Sterns, Lehman, GM etc)

    One of the things that I thought we learned in the 30's was that it isn't so much the banking system or the depositors, its the INCINERATOR at the back of the Bank turning up the assets you need to fear. That was one reason the US put firewalls between banks - so that the flame didn't spread too far, or the incinerator get to big... taking out all those firewalls over the years leaves us in the position that we better not let any Banks run Incinerators at least for very long....

    Was Cyprus lax on that? Seems to me we sure are.....

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 1:39 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    not just "turning up the assets" as in changing them to ashes, but BURNING up the assets.... proof reading comments one of my failings...

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 2:03 PM, milfalcon wrote:

    Even if you're right from an academic ivory tower point of view Morgan (and I believe you are--the haircut from leaving the Euro and devaluing would be far more painful), it's completely different emotionally and an amazingly ignorant approach when you consider human nature. Can you imagine what would happen the next time Spain or Italy lurches back towards a crisis and people panic as the cries of "Remember Cyprus" echo through the media? It was a monumentally dumb idea guaranteed to cause a panic. And even with it rescinded it reverberated with the public (most of whom don't follow the Euro mess closely any more than Americans follow fed policy) in such a way that it will almost certainly make all future efforts to save the Euro even harder. People are MORE nervous and fearful now than before--the exact opposite of what is needed to stabilize banks.

    I think Saletta is right on pretty much all accounts. A disastrous idea, and really Cyprus' only hope is for a massive Russian bailout, probably with the natural gas resources around Cyprus as the collateral, which will also make Europe unhappy (they are already overly dependent on Russian gas).

    I cannot get over how monumentally ignorant of human nature this was.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 2:06 PM, Chuck2010 wrote:

    Any arguments in favor of this particular form of theft to bail out bankers are bankrupt. Depositor insurance is meaningless in the context of the proposed deal and rightly suggests a run on banks is appropriate. Where is the haircut for the bondholders in this deal?

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 2:08 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<Can you imagine what would happen the next time Spain or Italy lurches back towards a crisis and people panic as the cries of "Remember Cyprus" echo through the media?>>

    Would it be different if the "remember Cyprus" worries were, "Remember when Cyprus left the euro and its citizens lost 60% of their wealth overnight?" Don't you think that would cause panic in a "who's next" sense, too?

    It's in a terrible position regardless.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 2:30 PM, Darwood11 wrote:

    "Destructive to the Banking System" and "Outright theft from working stiffs" are good summaries of the situation.

    I am of the opinion that everyone in the U.S. should be really paying attention to this situation. We're not Cyprus, but it is illuminating to see how the world banking community and politicians respond to these problems.

    The theme is "Seize a portion of the assets of the savers."

    After listening to Obama rant about "the rich" I think it is prudent to understand that "the working stiffs" in America who have savings will one day become a target. After all, anyone who has anything in a bank account is "rich" if compared to those who have nothing, or a negative net worth and an underwater home they could not afford in the first place.

    I also need to say that my spouse, who has been a liberal for decades, is extremely disappointed in the direction this country has been going. Perhaps it is because she has savings, a Roth-IRA and a 401(k). She now understands that she has something personal to lose here. In fact, she is now talking about "how to shelter our money overseas."

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 2:56 PM, milfalcon wrote:

    <Would it be different if the "remember Cyprus" worries were, "Remember when Cyprus left the euro and its citizens lost 60% of their wealth overnight?" Don't you think that would cause panic in a "who's next" sense, too? >

    Of course it would. Cyprus just extended their bank holiday for the entire week because everyone is going to pull their funds now. The fear this idea, no matter how logical in the abstract sense, injected into the public has been disastrous. I believe Cyprus extended the bank holiday to prevent riots and actual deaths when the run happens and there isn't enough cash to pay out to everyone. Hope I'm wrong, fear I'm not. That's what this has done.

    Cynically, I'm beginning to think the Eurozone can't be saved as is. If it's going to be saved at all it will be when one country (and hopefully a small one like, say, Cyprus) leaves the common currency (willingly or not) and is all but destroyed (and not just financially). That sort of shock therapy (the fear you mention when a country loses 40% or more in a depreciation) might, might, be enough to get the fools currently in charge to understand that the combination of a common currency and "austerity now" policies throughout a pool of countries in vastly different economic circumstances is a disaster and that the longer they push the day of reckoning the worse the fallout will be (as evidenced by whatever country is wiped out).

    Even more cynically I think even that sort of mega-disaster won't help. As a general rule people don't react well under conditions of fear and panic and are more likely to double down on whatever they are doing and whatever they have already emotionally invested in believing rather than change course. In which case the Euro is doomed. It's just a matter of time before a rather utopian fantasy falls apart.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2013, at 11:53 PM, BlindLuck32 wrote:

    The article doesn't mention fractional reserve lending?

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2013, at 7:39 AM, jonesericr wrote:

    The portion of your article is what government workers in the U.S. are about to face with very damaging consequences. Should the furloughs go through, our notification has been delayed 2 weeks by the Pentagon, we will lose 2 days of work and this can't be made up with overtime. Should you fall short on your bills and your landlord, bank or whomever puts a lien on you this becomes an issue for your command to deal with. Indebtedness can cause you to lose your security clearance if you have one and your job. There is a zero tolerance for indebtedness so don't be surprised if people are forced out of their job because they couldn't pay their bills because their checks were too short.

    Of course Congress isn't aware of this because their checks don't stop.

    ej

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2013, at 12:47 PM, geezer27606 wrote:

    Inflation is largely compensated by rising interest rates. You get your real value back plus a little more. There is no compensation for confiscation whether done at the bank or at gunpoint on the street.

  • Report this Comment On March 27, 2013, at 3:17 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    I have re-thought my original comment in light of the fact that the plan to hit even insured depositors was abandoned.

    I think it is VERY APPROPRIATE to his the non-insured deposits above the limit. They would get wiped out in a bank failure anyway. And this is what this is. In fact, only taxing them 30% or 40% is better than they would do if in fact the authorities followed the rule of law and allowed the the normal course of things to take place.

    What I think Chuck is missing is that depositors are creditors. Creditors lose when an entity fails. The bond-holders lose. These creditors lose. So long as they don't reneg on promises of insuring and maintaining the integrity of the insured deposits, I see little problem with this.

    It has a bad smell, but the reality is, the government is not "taking" the money of these depositors. The government is GIVING them the 60% or so not being taxed, which they would otherwise lose as a consequence of stupidly putting their money in uninsured accounts as creditors of insolvent banks.

  • Report this Comment On March 28, 2013, at 12:44 AM, ChrisBern wrote:

    TMFMorgan-- "Shareholders have been wiped out. Bondholders have been wiped out. Who do you want to write the check?"

    Yeah, exactly. That's called the Rule of Law.

    You'd really prefer to take the money from uninvolved, random citizens rather than from the investors who invested capital and lent money to these insolvent banks??? How is that morally defensible?

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Chuck Saletta
TMFBigFrog

Chuck Saletta has been a regular Fool contributor since 2004. His investing style has been inspired by Benjamin Graham's Value Investing strategy, and he manages the real-money Inflation-Protected Income Growth portfolio on Fool.com based on many of Graham's principles. Chuck also can be found on the "Inside Value" discussion boards as a Home Fool.

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