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With Cyprus, Europe Risks Being Too Tough on Banking Moral Hazard

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Europe has long been far too tolerant of moral hazard in its banking system. But with the Cyprus plan, the pendulum may now be swinging too far in the opposite direction.

This danger was made clear when Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch president of the eurogroup of finance ministers, rocked financial markets on Monday by hinting at a new doctrine that would put the full burden of future bank restructuring on creditors and depositors rather than taxpayers. In his words, "where you take on the risks you must deal with them, and if you can't deal with them then you shouldn't have taken them on".

This hardline stance echoes the memorable advice of Andrew Mellon, US Treasury secretary in the early 1930s, as reported by then President Herbert Hoover: "Liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… It will purge the rottenness out of the system… People will work harder, live a more moral life."

(Read More: European Default Has to Happen: Mark Mobius )

In July 2007, the opposite position was enunciated by Jochen Sanio, then Germany's top financial supervisor. As IKB, a medium-sized German bank, revealed massive subprime-related losses, he argued that not bailing it out would trigger "the worst financial crisis since 1931" – an intentionally frightening reference.

(Read More: Why Cyprus (Probably) Can't Happen in the US)

EU countries have since then implemented the "Sanio doctrine" by scrupulously reimbursing all creditors, including junior ones, of almost all failed banks with few and rather small exceptions in Denmark, Ireland and the UK. That this consistent dismissal of moral hazard originated in a German decision is ironic in light of later events.

Then change has come, gradually. In Deauville in October 2010, Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced that holders of euro area sovereign debt could face losses, but soon afterwards Ireland was still forbidden from "burning" senior bank bondholders.

However, policy makers slowly realised that guaranteeing all bank liabilities reinforced a damaging "doom loop" between banks and sovereigns. In July last year, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, noted that "the question of burden sharing with senior bond holders is evolving at the European level".

Spain's bank restructurings later that year imposed losses on many subordinated creditors. Earlier this year Ireland negotiated a deal that involved a loss for some senior bank bondholders. A largely silent revolution was instilling more market discipline into the financing of Europe's banks.

This gradual shift was welcome. But in Cyprus it accelerated out of control, all the way to full "Mellon doctrine". The island's two biggest banks are now being liquidated, even though the process is administrative rather than judicial, with no government financial assistance.

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In an echo of Deauville, European leaders signaled on March 16 that deposits were no longer safe, after which the German finance minister Wolfgang Schuble confirmed that deposit guarantees were "only as good as a state's solvency". This move annihilated trust in Cypriot banks and made the imposition of capital controls inevitable.

Just as the Sanio doctrine was made unsustainable by moral hazard and fiscal constraints, the Mellon doctrine is made unsustainable by the reality of systemic risk – today as in the 1930s. In fairness to Mr Dijsselbloem, he acknowledged that governments may not impose full financial discipline "in times of crisis", but then implied that we are in no such times right now: a heroic claim.

Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from catastrophic meltdowns. This is why a chastened US government had to bail out AIG, the insurance group, a day after letting Lehman Brothers go bankrupt.

As the US learnt the hard way, predictability is essential in such matters but also difficult to attain. Europe must now chart a path between untenable Sanio and unrealistic Mellon.

(Watch Now: Cyprus a 'Non-Event': Pro)

The trade-off is not only between moral hazard and systemic fragility, but also between national fiscal responsibility and European integration. The eurogroup's new insistence that "all insured depositors in all banks will be fully protected" may or may not be seen as a form of "deposit reinsurance", meaning that a deposit guarantee can indeed be stronger than a member state's own solvency. But this declaration will have little impact on depositors' behaviour unless a European backing of national deposit guarantee systems is made explicit.

Similarly, the insistence on orderly bank restructurings in an integrated market calls for a centralized process, which should be in place before the ECB conducts a comprehensive balance sheet assessment of all 150-odd banks transferred under its direct supervisory authority, a deadline now planned around mid-2014. The clock is ticking.

Contact Europe: Economy

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