After the attempted tolls on bank savings in Cyprus for saving the Euro, a new kind of tolls can be heard in the distance for the currency. The fundamental trust in the currency as a store of value has been broken, according to multiple signs across Europe. Even with the Cypriot parliament backpedaling frantically, the situation appears snowballing – there could be a bank run in two weeks.
When I was speaking at the first European Bitcoin conference in Prague, another speaker was a seasoned economist whose name I forget. He described how today’s bank system with so-called fractional reserve banking is essentially a crumbling Ponzi scheme. In summary, banks have the right to conjure up money out of thin air and lend that money to you against interest that they get to keep. (Yes, really, that’s actually how it works today, although it is admittedly a very simplified description.) As part of the Q&A, I asked him what the first sign of a collapse scenario materializing would be.
He responded that a first sign of collapse would be that people didn’t trust their holdings in the currency to retain their value, so they would actively seek to trade it off for other stores of value – other currencies or just about anything else. This was an answer that made sense in the light of the history of known hyperinflations and currency collapses.
In the past days with the Cypriot bailout measure, these first signs of a currency collapse scenario have materialized. People are now actively seeking to trade off their Euros, no longer trusting them as a store of value. When this has happened in the past to currencies, they have not survived.
This was visible on first on Cyprus, where people made a so-called run on the bank to get their money in cash to save it from the negotiated 6-10% “save-the-Euro” toll from all bank accounts, except the banks were closed, so it became a run on ATMs which predictably drained of cash in a heartbeat (and deliberately were not refilled).
A “run on the bank” means that people no longer trust the banks to hold their savings, so everybody tries to withdraw their money at the same time – something that no current bank survives, as the customers’ money isn’t in the bank vaults. This is a scenario that can develop in hours in any economy, when some people start withdrawing in a sign of distrust and more people follow suit to not be the one left standing when the music stops.
The tremors of the bank run – or the attempted bank run, thwarted only by a bank holiday – were felt far and wide across the entire Eurozone. People in several countries got the message loud and clear: it’s their savings, their retirement money, that may be next up for a shave.
One obvious alternative store of value is Bitcoin, which is gaining in popularity. Over the weekend, Bitcoin apps soared in popularity in Spain. That is no coincidence; Spain is one of the plummeting countries badly in need of a parachute.
Unsurprisingly, Bitcoin has not just soared in interest, but also in value the past days to meet increasing demand as people flee the Euro – it has climbed almost 50% in value since news broke of the Cypriot bank account toll a few days ago, topping 65 USD per bitcoin today, up from the 40s a week ago. (Those who hold their savings in bitcoin, which is unseizable, would not be affected by a bank account toll.)
Another such country is Italy, a country in a thorough financial mess. A few days ago, one German banking chief suggested that all Italian savings need a 15% one-time toll per the Cypriot model to save Italy’s economy. Guess what happens next.
So what brought us to this situation? Two things.
The first thing was the process of introducing the Euro, the common currency, which was an ivory tower project from the get-go. Europe’s political leaders had simply decided to create a prestige project of a common currency of the world’s largest economy, the European Union. In making this happen, any criticism that could suggest weaknesses in the idea were simply not allowed to percolate up to the decision-makers.
The second thing is the insane idea that bank profits are privatized and bank losses are socialized – meaning that bank owners get to pocket any profits, and taxpayers get to cover any losses that banks make. This is a recipe for disaster that needs to stop yesterday. There is simply no reason at all to treat banks differently from any other company. Yes, they keep the economy going – which is all the more reason to subject them to the rules of the economy, namely that when you risk money, you risk your own money and not the taxpayers’ money.
When banks started failing, governments unwisely stepped in and covered their losses. In this move, insolvent banks became insolvent governments while bank owners walked away. Tax payers have been footing the bill – and now, it appears to be the turn of the small savers.
The Euro is gone; bells are tolling its demise in the distant background. When the highest politicians in a Eurozone country told its people that the Euro is not trustable as a store of value, that was the point of no return. It won’t be here in a couple of years, at least not in its current form. The only conceivable way out I see that would allow the Eurocrats to keep some form of professional honor is to divide the Euro into two or more subcurrencies while it can still be done in some kind of order.
But such a move would require Eurocrats to admit that a failed policy could be caused by bad fundamentals, rather than insufficient effort (aka the “if it’s not working, you’re just not trying hard enough” mentality). Don’t hold your breath.
(End note: it could be argued that the problem isn’t with the Euro as such but with bank solvency, as the currency as such doesn’t look threatened on the surface – after all, people who manage to withdraw their savings into cash, still denominated in Euro, aren’t threatened; it’s having money in a bank that’s bad. However, in reality, that isn’t really an option, and the reason we’re in this situation in the first place is because the economies have been locked together in a common currency in a most unhealthy way.)