Dijsselblowing it

March 25, 2013

When I wrote this morning about the risks created by the new deal to bail out Cyprus in part by using the resources of depositors with more than 100,000 euros in two major Cypriot banks, I argued that the risk was that it could eventually undermine the banking system across Europe by serving as a new precedent: It could mean that large depositors should consider yanking their money out of any of the continent’s banks at the first hint of problems.

Thanks to the Dutch finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, we can now scratch the word "eventually." Today he displayed one of the more breathtaking displays of, shall we say, poor message management seen in the three-year plus euro zone crisis.


Not a great day for the president of the Eurogroup, Jeroan Dijsselbloem (here, with Christine Lagarde). (Virginia Mayo/AP)

Dijsselbloem, who also serves as president of the Eurogroup and thus as essentially the finance minister for the European governments collectively, first said, in an interview with Reuters and the Financial Times, that the approach taken in Cyprus that penalizes private depositors should be a template for future banks that run into trouble.

"If there is a risk in a bank, our first question should be 'Okay, what are you in the bank going to do about that? What can you do to recapitalize yourself?'. If the bank can't do it, then we'll talk to the shareholders and the bondholders, we'll ask them to contribute in recapitalizing the bank, and if necessary the uninsured deposit holders," Dijsselbloem said according to Reuters and the FT.

"It will force all financial institutions, as well as investors, to think about the risks they are taking on because they will now have to realize that it may also hurt them," he continued.

So investors who had spent the morning pondering whether, short-term qualities of the deal aside, it might trigger longer-term instability in the European banks soon got confirmation from a top official that this was exactly the plan. The comments undermined arguments by other European officials that Cyprus, with its large volumes of international deposits, particularly from Russia, was a unique situation, and that deposits in core European countries including Spain and Italy are safe.

Not long after, Dijsselbloem issued a terse statement walking back the comments. It says, in its entirety: “Cyprus is a specific case with exceptional challenges which required the bail-in measures we have agreed upon yesterday. Macro-economic adjustment programmes are tailor-made to the situation of the country concerned and no models or templates are used.”

Translation: Never mind.

But the damage was done.  Markets are down. And from here forward, depositors in European banks know that they are on notice, from no less than the Eurogroup president: If your money is in a bank that runs into problems, you’re going to pay. It is an admirable victory for market purism, and a loss for those who want to keep the European financial system in business.

Djisselbloem is relatively new in the job, having been finance minister only since November and Eurogroup president since January. It is not an auspicious start.

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Brad Plumer · March 25, 2013