Cyprus Goes Cashless the Hard Way

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laiki bank cyprusOriginally posted at Forbes on 3/24. Listen to Jon's interview, "Bitcoin: Is 'Digital Gold' The Future Of Money?" on FSN here.

The rolling crisis in Cyprus should reach a crescendo this week. If the parliament votes yes on some type of deposit confiscation, it would mean the people of Cyprus have elected to go “all in” on the euro and link their fate with the fate of the single currency.

When given a clear opportunity to leave the eurozone, Cypriots will probably decide to stay rather than rebuild their banking infrastructure from scratch.

With the latest maneuverings and after going full-circle with a range of alternatives, it appears that European bailout terms could be met by a 20-25% levy on deposits only in excess of the guaranteed 100,000 euros. Cypriot Finance Minister Michael Sarris said yesterday that a deposit levy was back on the table as a way to come up with the 5.8 billion euros needed by the new March 25th deadline for the larger rescue amount to be approved.

Writing for SkyNews, Ed Conway described the raid on bank deposits as “a step across the financial Rubicon.” Indeed, it has ramped up expectations as to what is now within the range of options for other EMU member states. Politely calling it a levy or deposit tax doesn’t alter the fact that it still amounts to brazen theft. Others have called it legalized bank robbery.

The Statist quote of the day goes to Naomi Fowler, Taxcast producer for Tax Justice Network, who said, “I think Cyprus is a cautionary tale to citizens that their government’s adventures in tax havenry will cost them dearly.” She advocates for global penalties against the provision of financial privacy which to this observer warps the very meaning of the word justice.

“Only put money in the banking system that you can afford to lose,” advises financial commentator Max Keiser. This is no more true than last weekend in Cyprus when bank depositors had electronic transfers blocked and were initially told to prepare for a confiscatory levy of up to 9.9% of their deposit balances across the board. The government then ordered banks to keep ATMs stocked since cash and credit cards were the only remaining methods of transacting. However, it is not clear how much longer the credit cards will be functioning in the country.

With banks in Cyprus now scheduled to re-open on March 26th after eight days of consecutive closure, this would make the Cypriot banking-system shutdown tied with the U.S. (March 6-13th, 1933) for longest number of shutdown days, following only first place Argentina (April 20-29th, 2002) at 10 days. Should the crisis extend beyond eight days and the European Central Bank pulls the liquidity it has been pumping into Cypriot banks, the ATMs may become cashless.

“The future of the euro zone has been put on the line for a few billion euros. Yet, the assumption of Cyprus not being a systemic risk rests on a single expectation: that it stays in the euro zone,” according to Stephen Fidler at The Wall Street Journal. “Should it exit, all bets are off.” However, other countries should be sufficiently discouraged from taking that route if they see live television images of a full-blown banking panic and an economic collapse within an EU member nation.

For now, the general attitude among the troika appears to be let’s experiment with Cyprus and if things go badly, it’s not such a long-term big deal because Cyprus is too small to matter. That could prove to be an optimistic fantasy.

With capital controls to prevent a mass exodus from Cyprus banks now fait accompli regardless of the bailout decision, Jeremy Warner at the Telegraph says that it is the end of the single currency in all but name:

Yet the point is that if capital controls are introduced, it basically makes Cypriot euros into a national currency, rather than part of wider monetary union. The capital controls will severely limit your ability to get your euros out of Cyprus, rending them essentially worthless in the wider eurozone. It would be a bit like telling Scots they can’t spend their UK pounds in England. Monetary union is many things, but above all it is about free movement of money and a uniform value wherever it is spent. When these functions are disabled, then you cease to be part of a single currency.

The era of free capital movement is behind us. Capital controls are about government keeping your money within easy reach should they ever want it. A decentralized and nonpolitical currency like Bitcoin starts to look attractive by providing a safer destination for wary depositors, allowing them to store their money securely in a digital account on their own computers, away from the big governments and politicians’ reach. It is possible to purchase bitcoins in Cyprus at LocalBitcoins.com.

“Money flows to where confidence exists” says Alan Safahi, CEO of ZipZap, Inc., a global cash network with over 700,000 locations in the world. “As bitcoin gains more acceptance, consumer confidence increases and more money will flow to bitcoins, causing a continuous rise in price due to limited supply which then increases consumer confidence even more,” adds Safahi.

As this trend continues, ZipZap, which processes more purchases of bitcoin than any other cash network stands to benefit tremendously from this trend. “The growth opportunity is not limited to Europe. We are seeing a significant increase in volume in the past few days from consumers in the U.S.,” says Safahi.

The emerging trend towards bitcoin as a flight to safety seems to be accelerating despite the recent regulatory guidance from FinCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network). As part of the Treasury Department, FinCEN’s guidance on enforcement would extend traditional money laundering rules to most types of virtual currencies, including bitcoin. Although bitcoin proponents emphasize that a test case has not emerged yet.

“It’s almost a badge of respect when the Treasury starts regulating you,” said James Rickards, author of Currency Wars. “You must be doing something right.”

“Gold is a great way to preserve wealth, but it is hard to move around,” added Rickards. “You do need some kind of alternative and Bitcoin fits the bill. I’m not surprised to see that happening.”

Related:
Bitcoin: Is 'Digital Gold' The Future Of Money? (Audio interview)
Europe's Feet of Clay

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