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A Reality check – Facing the Hard Truth about Private Debt and the Cyprus Economy

Posted by (Regular StockWatch Contributor) on July 11th, 2016 - 38 Comments
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After more than three years of self denial, finally, a report was recently published by the Central Bank, The Household  and  Non-Financial Corporations Indebtedness Report[1] of May 2016 stating what was more than obvious to any objective researcher who wanted to find out the truth about the Cyprus Economy after the bail-in. In short, that the country is facing a gargantuan private debt problem which constitutes the biggest obstacle for kick-starting and putting the economy back on a sustainable economic growth path. The report concedes that private debt (by households and non-financial corporations) is 358% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Add to that a public debt of almost 110% of GDP and the country is up against a debt of almost 5 times its GDP!

The argument that private debt is not so important is both conceptually and empirically wrong (see, for example, Steve Keen’s research[2]). Private debt is the main cause of economic crises. Fisher (1933), Minsky (1992)[3] and Keen (2001) among many others have argued that a key mechanism that pushes an economy towards a crisis is the accumulation of debt by the non-government sector. Moreover, Vague (2014)[4] notes “runaway growth in private debt, especially when combined with high existing levels of that debt, is what has caused most major economic crises of the last century“.

The chronic debt situation of Cyprus is further compounded by the fact that a large proportion of bank deposits are owned by foreigners while almost all loans extended by banks have been taken up by Cypriot entities. Moreover, most of these loans were given out by banks without proper credit risk assessment and, as result, the funds were put in mostly unproductive and wasteful investments[5]. Therefore, Cyprus has an acute problem not only because of the extremely high level of private debt but also because much of this debt is now poorly performing in creating the income and wealth to effect a timely repayment of loans. Furthermore, with Cyprus experiencing continuous and considerable deflation over the last three years (consumer prices fell by 2.2% in 12 months to June 2016) the real debt burden on the Cyprus economy is being constantly aggravated pushing the country into a debt-deflation downward spiral as articulated and highlighted by the eminent economist Irving Fisher.

The most incredible thing during these past three years of denial was the almost co-ordinated attempt of politicians in power, civil servants and the academia in general (with only few exceptions) to downplay the importance and even the existence of the problem of the enormous private debt at the very core of the real economy as being the major obstacle obstructing economic development and the road towards a sustained growth. When anyone (physical or legal entity and even a whole country) owes almost five times the gross income that can be generated in a year then, simply, something has to give. The ability to even cover the interest payments is seriously impaired and at the very least questionable in an economy where levels of  real economic activity apart from tourism are still very low.

Although it is easy for the Government to present the numbers in a nice format and create fake success stories, like the ability to borrow from the markets at, albeit, very high interest rates, or to publicise the endeavours of some international investors who are more interested in securing conditions for prowling the assets and resources of the country as votes of confidence for the Cyprus economy, the hard truth remains that an economy which is so deeply indebted needs a major overhaul to kick- start a sustainable process for economic development.

The report of the Central Bank of Cyprus rightly mentions that the debt of the Cyprus private sector remains extremely high, but fails to report how the debt of other previously very highly-indebted nations such as Iceland and Ireland has been reduced substantially in recent years by effective policy action which has lowered considerably the volume of private debt and raised its quality, thereby substantially reducing the non-performing loans component. In the executive summary of this report we read “During the past year, strong policy action has been taken and the economic adjustment programme was followed through – which was important in mitigating the impact of the high level of indebtedness and the vulnerabilities being faced by the financial sector. GDP in Cyprus is forecast to increase by 2,0% in 2016, which is expected to be financed to a large extent by banks. This shows that Cyprus is on a path of recovery following three years of recession”.  In contrast we would contend that it is indeed the lack of effective policy action by the Cyprus authorities that has maintained private indebtedness at extremely high levels and jeopardised severely the prospect of achieving solid and sustained economic growth.

Leslie G. Manison is an economist, specialising in macroeconomic policy analysis and international financial relations. He is a former senior economist at the International Monetary Fund, an ex-advisor in the Cyprus Ministry of Finance, and a former senior advisor in the Central Bank ofCyprus.

Savvakis C. Savvides is an economist, specialising in economic development and project financing.  He is a former senior manager at the Cyprus Development Bank and has been a regular visiting lecturer at Harvard University and more recently at Queen’s University, Canada. Author page: http://ssrn.com/author=262460.


[1] http://www.centralbank.gov.cy/nqcontent.cfm?a_id=15455

[2] Keen, Steve, “Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences“, Pluto Press Australia (2001)

[3] Minsky, Hyman P., “The Financial Instability Hypothesis”. Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, Working Paper No. 74: 6–8. (May 1992)

[4] Vague, Richard, “The Next Economic Disaster”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014

[5] See, Savvides, Savvakis C., Overcoming Private Debt (Unblocking the Loan Burdened Real Economy in Cyprus) (June 20, 2016). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2784680 and Manison, Leslie Graeme and Savvides, Savvakis C., Towards Sustainable Growth (Rebuilding the Foundations of the Cyprus Economy) (May 23, 2016). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2784802 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2784802

Categories → Οικονομία

38 Comments
  1. avatar
    E. Z. on July 11, 2016 - (permalink)

    Writing about a perceived problem without offering any opinion regarding a solution, is an exercise in futility.

    • avatar
      Savvakis C Savvides on July 12, 2016 - (permalink)

      We offer plenty of advice if you care to read our published papers referred to in the article, some of which were also communicated to the Government but apparently put on the Ministry’s shelf:
      See, Savvides, Savvakis C., Overcoming Private Debt (Unblocking the Loan Burdened Real Economy in Cyprus) (June 20, 2016). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2784680 and Manison, Leslie Graeme and Savvides, Savvakis C., Towards Sustainable Growth (Rebuilding the Foundations of the Cyprus Economy) (May 23, 2016). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2784802 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2784802

      • avatar
        E.Z on July 13, 2016 - (permalink)

        So the main proposal is to leave the euro, without even addressing the consequences of such a move with respect to devaluation, inflation, capital outflows and the myriad of other issues that will be created. The fact is, unfortunately, there are no easy solutions and the political climate is such that politicians are incapable of taking bold initiatives as is the case in Greece.

        • avatar
          Savvakis C Savvides on July 13, 2016 - (permalink)

          E.Z., the really sad thing is that you say you have read the referenced articles and that you have concluded that the main proposal is to leave the Euro and moreover, as you claim, without calculating or addressing the consequences! The hard currency which is outside our control (the Euro) is identified as being one of the causes making it harder for a country like Cyprus to recover. Leaving the Euro, especially in the manner that you so readily and haphazardly put forward, was never a proposal, never mind being the main proposal! It’s a real pity, if you have really read all our writings, that you have not picked up on any other concrete proposals Les and I make. Just to give one example, it is amazing how you missed on the proposal to create a Development Finance Agency (with proper funding and expert skills in project financing) to oversee and where necessary fund an effort to reconstruct the economy, as there is so much written about it in all the papers. Incidentally, I should mention that the Government reaction to this proposal is that they cannot initiate its funding despite the fact that it may be useful. And yet we have returned more than €2.5 billion to the Troika money as not needed!

          • avatar
            Anonymous on July 13, 2016 - (permalink)

            I agree 100% with you that the “hard currency” is a serious problem because the state has lost one of the major economic tools that is monetary policy. Also, productivity in in the economy is not keeping up with the “hard currency” and therefore there is the need of continues internal devolution. Further, given the prevailing financial conditions fiscal options are limited. I hope we all agree with these basic economics 101 facts.
            Creating agencies to solve structural economic conditions, might appear, in theory, as a positive steps to move the economy forward but the practical reality is that the end result would be more political interference in the economy. In other words, the government would decide which sector should get funding and these decisions, most likely, would be based on political affiliations and corruption.

      • avatar
        Thinkingaloud on July 13, 2016 - (permalink)

        I agree with E.Z. in that the article itself offers no solutions (although the citations do) and it would have been preferable to list at least a number of solutions in a bullet form that would perhaps entice the reader to read further details in the citations.
        Further to that, I will stress that I am no academic but I do have private debt and I am suffering as a result of the actions of the past and the inaction of the present. Banks are unwilling to budge as this is the first time they are facing such issues, they believe that the personal guarantees that they used to demand from every borrower is enough to get them covered and keep raising interest rates in response to nonperforming loans (as if my inability to repay my loan will somehow disappear if I owe more!!!), thus making it more difficult to ever find a solution. I would like to hear from some academics who perhaps have personal experience with the problem at hand and not talk theories which are at most part just theories.
        Possible real solutions for the debt overhang:
        1. debt writedowns (substantial debt writedowns to offer some real breathing room to the borrowers)
        2. bottom low interest rates with grace periods to reflect the deflation realities that people are facing.
        3. debt to equity swaps with write offs of the remaining loans.

        The real problem is “is anybody listening?”. The economy (aside from tourism) is barely surviving but the govt is offering no real support and chooses to tout the “success” story (which is good to some extent as we need to escape the pessimist thinking). The debt overhang is forcing indebted Cypriots to sell whatever they can/have at ridiculous prices to cover some of their debts and thus giving all the potential gains to foreigners for peanuts. Without the right support from the government Cypriots will continue selling their assets (at deep discounts) and thus become a nation owned by foreigners and without real chance for a comeback.

        • avatar
          Savvakis C Savvides on July 13, 2016 - (permalink)

          Well put! I should add, does anyone even care to listen!

          • avatar
            Anonymous on July 14, 2016 - (permalink)

            Dear Thinkaloud, I am not an academic, but I am a banker, and coincidentally also a borrower and personal guarantor for third party debts, so I fully share what you feel.
            Please allow me to communicate my thoughts that have derived purely from my experience.
            Firstly, banks are private/public companies, whose main task is to make money, just like any other company. So, naturally, government intervention in banks would not be easily tolerated, just like in any other private company.
            Banks, however, are sitting at a junction in the economy: they are taking money from depositors and lending it to borrowers. This is key to the prosperity of any modern economy, as through their lending they are helping the economy to grow, and the money for that lending comes from their large pools of depositors – practically the entire population of the country. So, we very much need healthy banks.
            Private funds can carry out similar investment activity, but not as wide-spread as banks. Banks have (or supposed to have) specialised lending divisions that have the expertise to analyse loan requests for anything from as small as a car loan to as large as a joint-venture activity to finance the construction of a shopping mall. Private funds would only go for large investments with thick margins.
            Now, because banks are having such a key seat in the economy they have the extra responsibility of being accountable for returning the depositors’ money. And that is where supervision and policy making is justified – not by the government but by an independent party such as the Central Bank.
            The main role of the Central Bank is to take preventive measures.They need to be stopping banks from entering into excessively risky transactions, before they actually do so.
            We all know that the Central Bank has not done that well. And in fairness, it faced political pressures from all angles in order to be lax.
            But during the good years, nobody wants to hear about prudence in banking; everybody is greedy and they can only see the rewards in transactions, not the risks. It is only when the economic cycle turns to negative that everybody starts talking about how excessive risk should not be tolerated. You can see this pattern of behaviour all over the world.
            The harsh reality is that once you enter a negative trend it takes years to come out. And once you find yourself in such a situation, it is too late for central bank supervision to be effective.
            Now, you raise the question as to whether there should be intervention, so that banks make it more bearable for their borrowers to pay back.
            Very good thought, but we also have to consider the other side of the coin: What you happen if you took a battered bank and forced it to reduce its profit margins and write off parts of its borrowers’ loans (=bank assets) by using its capital? Quite simply, you would weaken that bank even further. When in fact you need banks to be strong for the economy to improve.
            Very much a chicken-and-egg situation – and that is the actual consequence of insufficient supervision by the Central Bank during the good years.
            One of the things you mentioned was about the increased interest charges the banks apply when one is behind their payments.
            The theory of lending goes as follows: the higher your client’s risk, the higher should be the bank’s return (i.e. the interest rate). Once a borrower is falling behind on their payments they are automatically considered as higher risk, so the banks apply the penalty fees.
            Another consideration is that the penalty fees are acting as a disincentive for a borrower to not meet their payments – in other words if you are considering not paying your installment, then knowing you will be charged more if you don’t, then you will pay your installment.
            Both above are theories and in my opinion apply only in certain contexts. There should be ways of working around them.

        • avatar
          Erol Riza on July 14, 2016 - (permalink)

          Thinking aloud
          I will attempt to give some answers to the points you have raised as a banker and not as an academic:
          1. Substantial write downs are not possible across the board as this creates a huge moral hazard issue and banks will need to recapitalise if they did so. The evidence provided by the IMF in counties which have experienced a financial crisis which has been similar to Cyprus has proposed forbearance or a standstill for s short period. The only case for a write down is where the borrower repays his debt in full or has agreed a restructuring and provided additional equity otherwise there is no incentive for a bank to write down when there is adequate collateral.
          2. Low interest interests alone would not make a borrower repay if he is facing solvency issues. While grace periods, interest only, can help, this must be consistent with Central bank o Cyprus guidelines about restructuring loans. Moreover, if half of your borrowers are not paying their loans a bank needs to earn enough to make a profit and provide for NPLs. Low interest rates have not empirically meant a better economy as we see in the EU and especially in Italy when banks are holding substantial NPLs. IN Cyprus the NPL issue is complicate by the specific nature of the majority of NPLs which are real estate and where in many cases have no return. This has been provided empirically that NPLs with a real estate link act as a drag on the economy if they remain on bank balance sheets.
          3 Debt to equity swaps with write off of the raining loan is out of the question and no regulator in his right mind will allow this let alone the board of a bank. You seem to forget that the bulk of the liabilities of a bank are depositor’s money and you seem to be generous with other people’s money. I have come across debt to equity where there is scope for additional investment and thereby the debt reduction makes it attractive for a new investor but can only work for very few cases. Moreover, there is a limit on how much equity a bank can hold as a percentage of its capital and here agin the regulators, for systemic banks means the ECB, will tolerate. I am afraid you do not need an academic to tell you that this is a non starter save for exceptional cases.

          • avatar
            Thinkingaloud on July 19, 2016 - (permalink)

            Dear Erol,
            Thank you for your elaborate answer.
            I have to clarify however that I never called for an across the board deb write downs. I agree with you that this should be done on a case by case basis.
            Discussing with bankers or ex-bankers is always interesting. You seem to forget that the banks abused the system and borrowers for years! Anonymous (higher up) has put it right that the Central Bank never really practiced any supervision and that has caused many discrepancies in the economy that we are now called to correct.
            The banks used to inflate the values of the assets to give more loans to people who couldnt afford them in order to meet higher targets and make more bonuses! The fact that those were depositors money never really bothered them then. Now it is a big issue!
            Now for some real math. If my property was worth 500k, the bank would lend me 70% of the 70%, or around 250k. If they really screwed up, they would give me 350-400k. I will take the upper bound just to make my point. So I got 400k. No questions whether I could repay it or not. (most likely not but they did not care). They slapped a “low” interest of 5% and off I go. This was 2008 (assuming prices peaked at the time). As the economy was ok I managed to make payments the first 5 years and after that I have not been able to. The bank in its eternal wisedom decided that after I lost my job in 2013 I was actually pretending I could not meet payments so rightly so, my loan is riskier so I now have a 8% interest rate. Since 2013, the amount I now owe 400+(400*8%*3)= 475k.
            The asset is now worth 30% less but the bank now says that it is worth 50% less. So it is now worth 250k. The bank, has already made provisions of circa 50% which means in its books I owe 237k. Even if that was not the case what I have really taken from depositors (mind you i was also a depositor at some point in order to get that loan) is 400k. If the bank takes in the property and writes off the rest, do you think it would be SO difficult to handle?
            On the other hand, the bank prefers to sell my loan to some fund at a value of about 15% of the book value (so about 60k) instead of agreeing with me on better terms. Even if the bank thinks that funds would buy the loans at a higher value because they are collateralized, do you think that the funds will give them more than 60-70% of the values of the underlying?
            I am not arguing for blanket write offs as many have tried to abuse the system. But the 90% of the population is honest and hard working and they are just trapped because of the inability of the system, the incompetence of the people running it, the cronism that we are faced with in Cyprus, the dumb bankers who are in charge of their loans. Cyprus needs solutions. Bold solutions. The banks can take some hit while the people have already taken a lot. Their wealth invested in equities in Cyprus has disappeared, their property values have been halved, their salaries slashed and yet we have to save the banks. I know the value of the banks but banks with no customers are as good as no banks!
            The banks need to change their attitude at best. They have to drop their policies of guarantors and personal guarantees, drop their interest rates substantially. They have to provide some breathing space with long grace periods and hope that property values increase. With the current deflation pressures in the market, the loans will never be paid off. They know it but they refuse to deal with the problem. They have abused their clients enough in the past and they continue to do so. The Central Bank regulator is nowhere to be seen, politicians are talking nonsense.
            What are the people supposed to do? Do you have any solutions? You have certainly offered none in your post.

        • avatar
          Erol Riza on July 19, 2016 - (permalink)

          Dear Thinking aloud,
          I am not an apologist of the banks’ management during the period which you refer to and I would say that there was a problem across the banking system with regards to good corporate governance and certainly a lack of understanding of risk management. Of course in good times no one challenges even the most obvious bad practise but this is for economic historians to write. I certainly did not believe that the depositors money could have been so badly managed when Greek bonds were bought. This should tell you a lot.
          As for the solutions which you ask for one can only look at the empirical evidence and try to propose such solution adapted for local conditions. The evidence suggests that if there was an opportunity to explore a solution for Cyprus real estate linked NPLs this was in November 2012 (the AMC idea) the summer of 2013 (Real Estate Investment bank) when the options were discussed with the TROIKA, the MOF and the Central Bank of Cyprus. The proposed solution was killed at its genesis and hence we have to manage with what we have; banks having to deal with real estate NPLs which can be classified as households and corporates.
          In my view, and it seems the banks have already introduced such debt resolutions, the matter will be resolved over time by consensus where this is possible. All the evidence is that it is not in the banks’ interest to resort to the courts and evict households where there is a social issue. There is no interest by any foreign fund as you suggest to buy into household debt when it can take 3-5 years to foreclose. The banks will have to find the restructuring a long and tedious process but one that banks can manage.
          In Cyprus the bigger problem are the corporate loans which have either to be restructured as per Central Bank guidelines or where there is no viable business plan those companies which over borrowed may see their collateral either swapped for debt relief or foreclosed and sold.

          If we look at what is feasible within the Band Resolution & Recovery Directive introduced this year it is hard for the government to provide support to banks, however, it will be interesting to see how the problems of Italian banks are addressed. If there is some allowance for banks to get state aid in exceptional circumstances then Cyprus should seek a similar solution for household debt. One such solution could be for the household debt to be swapped by banks for government debt and for the household debt to be managed over a 30 year period giving households time to repay. If the Government decides to forgive debt to the low income borrowers it would be much easier to get politicians to agree without the moral hazard a bank would face.

  2. avatar
    Σταύρος Ζένιος on July 11, 2016 - (permalink)

    Dear Leslie and Savvakis

    the issue of “debt overhang of business and households” was identified in my 2013 paper as one of the three factors creating the “perfect crisis” of the Cyprus economy. As pointed out private debt by non-financial corporations was significantly higher than OECD average. The ability of households and corporations in servicing it was also questioned.

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2233239

    It is important that this issue is highlighted, but why do you claim that the country is in denial? You also take a swipe at academics, but none of the Cypriot academics who comment on public policy I am ware of, ever disagreed with the debt overhang identification.

    • avatar
      Savvakis C Savvides on July 12, 2016 - (permalink)

      Dear Stavros,
      We did not say all academics. But to clarify, we did not argue that academics are not aware of the private debt issue. On the contrary, and perhaps this is what makes it even worse to accept, some economists it seems, choose to downplay it’s importance and how relevant this is to the current Cyprus situation.

  3. avatar
    Leslie G Manison on July 12, 2016 - (permalink)

    We would argue that some academics have been too eager to support the Government’s growth forecasts without taking account of the drag on private spending that would occur if private entities complied with their debt and other obligations including taxes.Also as argued in the paper with Savvakis Savvides it is how the high debt overhang is dealt with which will be important in determining the growth prospects for heavily-debt laden NFCs; conversion of NFC’s debt into minority equity participation for banks we consider most helpful but would probably require an agency with project financing experts as we recommend.

  4. avatar
    Sophocles Michaelides on July 12, 2016 - (permalink)

    Το πρόβλημα του υπερβολικού δανεισμού των κυπριακών νοικοκυριών, επιχειρήσεων, κλπ., αναδείχθηκε για πρώτη φορά στο Δοκίμιο Εργασίας 2009-3: ‘’Ιστορία του Επίσημου Νομίσματος και της Κεντρικής Τράπεζας της Κύπρου: Προκαταρκτικά Αποτελέσματα για την Περίοδο 1960 – 2007’’. Μπορείτε να το βρείτε στο σύνδεσμο:

    http://www.centralbank.gov.cy/media/pdf_gr/NPWPG_No3_092009__.pdf

  5. avatar
    Savvakis C Savvides on July 13, 2016 - (permalink)

    Thank you Sophocles. Which of course begs the question, what did the Central Bank do to contain the problem!

  6. avatar
    The Invisible Hand on July 13, 2016 - (permalink)

    A generally informative arcticle. Can the authors add some more relevant information, if available?
    1. How much of the over leveraged Cypriot individuals’ and corporate’ debt is financed by foreign deposits?
    2. How much of the over leveraged individuals’ debts is debt of state and semi-government employees backed by their anticipated retirement bonus (εφ’άπαξ), which, in effect reduces to a deferred sovereign debt?
    3. Do we have any information on the asset side of the debtors’ balance sheet? In other words is the problem solvency (which requires write-offs) or liquidity (which can be restructured).
    4. How many honest and legal businesses can afford current real interest rates, which over the last 4-5 years are close to 8-10% if deflation is added on? This may have blown up a liquidity problem into an insolvency for many.

    I do not, of course, justify those who incurred debts beyond their means, for which responsibility must be shared with bonus seeking bankers.

  7. avatar
    Leslie G Manison on July 13, 2016 - (permalink)

    To “Thinking Aloud”,
    Appreciate and generally agree with your candid comments.To state the obvious
    substantial debt relief will have to take place via rescheduling and writedowns under voluntary and court administered debt mitigation.But the the institutional capacity to bring about such debt relief and a considerable reduction in private debt is lacking in Cyprus. For NFCs there is a need for an independent institution that has the capability of converting loans of potentially viable but debt-laden enterprises into equity including minority positions from lenders ( mainly banks).
    For household debt voluntary arrangements with banks via the Financial Ombudsman need to be stepped up to try secure debt relief. In Iceland institutional arrangements were set up that seem to provide considerable debt relief to households without much government financial support.
    As Savvakis and I argue in our recent paper the best way to reduce private debt and the NPLs is to institute policies that can contribute to the sustained and healthy growth of the Cyprus economy.Households and enterprises earning more income will have greater ability to repay their debts. In this respect the government needs to raise domestic demand through promoting productive public investments and lowering personal income tax rates in favour of middle and lower income households which have suffered disproportionately from the crisis.Just as should be the case with strategic debt defaulters the government needs to get serious in combatting tax evasion and avoidance so as to help lower the tax and debt burdens for law-abiding citizens with less ability to pay.

  8. avatar
    Savvakis C Savvides on July 14, 2016 - (permalink)

    Reply to Anonymous on July 14, 2016,

    Well described. I would add though that a bank has duty of care:

    a) to do proper and credit risk assessment and only consider financing the viable projects which also are likely to have adequate repayment capability
    b) not to bypass or disregard step a) above even if the collaterals or security position is evaluated as strong and last but not least,
    c) that there is a limit of how much exposure can or should undertake through the provision of loans. Risk exposure and as you correctly point out risk premium to compensate for that should be limited. A bank should not move into what is generally described as equity risk simply because it can and the borrower is willing to pay additional premium and penalties.

    I would recommend downloading my paper on “Corporate Lending and the Assessment of Credit Risk” from the following link if you want read more on the importance of credit risk assessment and lax conditions existing in our banks. You can do so from the following link: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1813013. The paper was written some time before the crisis of 2013 as I was so frustrated to see around me the giving out of loans without proper study, care and scrutiny.

  9. avatar
    Freakonomist on July 14, 2016 - (permalink)

    Although I agree with the authors on the issue raised (which is clearly stated by the statistics) and their proposals, a number of points should be highlighted:

    1. The headline figure for the Private Debt (358% of GDP) which is used is misleading if someone would like to make comparisons between countries and over time. This figure includes debt which is related to Special Purpose Entities most of which have nothing to do with the real economy in Cyprus. If this debt is removed then the actual Private Debt is much lower (much lower than 283% that the Central Bank report suggests since not all SPEs which are registered in Cyprus have been identified as such).

    2. The metric of Private Debt as a % of GDP cannot by any means pinpoint the scale of the problem alone. Private debt should be compared to wealth (financial and non-financial), as well in order to have an idea what the Net Private Debt is. The Central Bank report only gives data regarding the financial wealth of households and NFCs.

    3. When discussing about private sector indebtedness, the future expected profits and income should be taken into account (even though they can be affected by current private debt) in order to assess if the currently indebted NFCs and households are unsustainably indebted. In industries like tourism and its auxiliary industries, by reducing the debt burden now by debt rescheduling/restructuring, debt might be sustainable after all. For unsustainable debts the only way out is the sale of assets (either directly or through the banking system).

    4. In itself, the private sector indebtedness at this stage should not be a real worry since it will be corrected eventually in one way or another. Banks have already started lending again to positive NPV projects/industries and Foreign Direct Investment starts to pick up again especially in real estate. With this momentum, and as long this is kept, the above developments will help the economy recover faster and bring the private indebtedness at sustainable levels at some point.

  10. avatar
    Leslie G Manison on July 15, 2016 - (permalink)

    To”The Invisible Hand”,
    Good questions some of which we have sought answers from the Central Bank of Cyprus( CBC). Against private debt estimated at nearly 62 billion at end-2015 foreign deposits are estimated very roughly at 19 billion euro, that is over 30% of such debt, most of which( around 90%) is held by domestic entities.
    The CBC quarterly financial statistics publication and their debt report show that household financial assets are well in excess of their financial liabilities; household net worth position was estimated to be equal to 107.9% of GDP on September 30 2015, but falling compared with 150% in mid-2012.
    Given the difficulties of large number of households in repaying debt there is prima facie evidence that heavily indebted households do not have the financial assets to match their debt obligations.However, with
    considerable strategic defaulting in meeting debt repayments going on it is difficult to determine the extent of the households with sufficient financial assets to be able to meet their debt obligations. An insight into this matching issue would be provided by the second wave of the “Household Consumption and Finance Network” of Eurobanks,the results of which the Research Department of the CBC is sitting on (since mid-2015) and not publishing because they need to be further “scrutinised”.This survey financed essentially by the Cyprus tax payer contains detailed data on the evolving wealth distribution including debt of different household categories and it is a scandal that the CBC is withholding such valuable information.
    The net financial liabilities of NFCs has increased markedly to over 225% of GDP by September 2015 from around 190% in March 2012 indicating most strikingly their extremely weak financial position and inability of this sector to generate growth without substantial debt relief.

    • avatar
      Savvakis C Savvides on July 15, 2016 - (permalink)

      Amazing revelation by Les. And he should know! I therefore formally ask the Central Bank to comment on this! Why is such a vital report held back from publication for long?

  11. avatar
    Savvakis C Savvides on July 16, 2016 - (permalink)

    Reply to: Anonymous on July 13, 2016

    I want to clarify that the Development Finance Agency as it is proposed and as it exists in other countries where it was instituted (i.e. Ireland or the Netherlands) is going to be created by the enactment of law which will make it totally independent of the Government. The Government will provide part of its funding as also, it is hoped, by multi-lateral financing institutions but the Government or politicians in general will have no say or involvement in their evaluation and assessment or final verdict about a project. It will be manned by experts in project finance and risk assessment who will be in position to evaluate new public sector projects and propose for approval and financing only those that are deemed after careful analysis to be economically viable (and with a manageable risk profile).

    This is not another Government structure as you seem to be suggesting in your comment. On the contrary, it will provide a much needed vetting of public sector projects (and PPPs) and also lead the way towards the reconstructing and refinancing of private sector businesses which are hugely indebted and in the format that these entities exist today and with the very extreme debts they carry (and I may add, in an ailing economy) most of them are not and should not be restructured. If they are, they will only fail again soon.

  12. avatar
    Savvakis C Savvides on July 19, 2016 - (permalink)

    I agree with both the narrative and the sentiment expressed in ThinkingAloud’s reply to Erol. This “moral hazard” argument is very conveniently put forward by banks to allow them the freedom to maximise value for them. Either, as TA says, through selling the loans or in private deals for disposing the assets of their distressed clients. What about the moral hazard the banks (and Central Bank) created when they were partying with other people’s money?

    If a bank prudently comes to an agreement to settle a bad loan (especially within the limits afforded by what has been provided for) it is no moral hazard. It is good business. The bank registers a profit by having a write back of provisions for that loan. And as TA ssys, this is done on a case-by-case basis. It concerns no one else except the bank and its client. This was always the practice.

    • avatar
      Thinkingaloud on July 22, 2016 - (permalink)

      I agree with Erol Riza on many fronts and I am happy that we find this forum as a civilized medium to express and share our opinions, views and thoughts. Thank you Erol for your last reply. I believe we agree on many more fronts as we both agree on the basic principles of a negotiated agreement for all parties involved whereby all parties share their equal (fair) share of the mess.
      On the topic of dealing with NPLs I will also make another suggestion to our fellow bankers. By all means I do understand that Banks are in the business of making money (profits) and not in the business of redistributing wealth. However, in this mess that the banks have dragged us all, the banks have to come up with solutions (innovative maybe, novel for them, common practice in other countries).
      I will touch upon the concept of selling the NPLs. We often hear the “foreign funds” being demonized as the ones who will come and buy our properties and lives for peanuts. This is all nonsense politics that our politicians (ignorants) use for personal gain. It is in the bank’s interest (and hence the shareholders interest) to resolve the NPL issue as soon as possible in the most efficient way. If they sell their loan portfolios, no sophisticated investor will ever make a bid for more than 30-40% of the face value, given that the face value is backed by a collateral. I will argue that if my loan of 400,000 is backed 100% by a collateral (ie a collateral worth 400,000) the buyer would be willing to buy the loan in a best case scenario at 70% which means 280,000. That buyer would be willing to pay me to surrender my collateral and walk away recording an immediate profit of 43%. And we would both be happy. Now if my asset is worth 300,000 they will probably buy the loan at around 50% again best case scenario. They would then strike a deal whereby I surrender the collateral or they come up with a new loan (much lower amount 200,000) backed by a collateral worth 300,000 and I will eventually be able to repay it. So, the resistance to sell the loan portfolios is hurting the banks, the borrowers, and the economy at large as the stalemate continues. The longer the banks wait, the bigger might be the “loss” they will have to book. If the bank is not willing to negotiate in equal terms with me as a borrower and come to a negotiated agreement, I want my loan to be sold off. I will definitely get better treatment from a foreign fund which can work more preofessionally and outside the realm of the banking regulation.
      I chose Thinkingaloud as my forum name as I like to share my thoughts and invite criticism. Criticism leads to discussions which may lead to solutions. I am not agnostic of how the financial world works and my offered “solutions” might be bold but are solutions that are happening.
      Its time to talk about solutions and actions instead of dealing with theories.

  13. avatar
    Erol Riza on July 23, 2016 - (permalink)

    Dear Thinking aloud

    I agree with your stance on the use of this blog as a format for productive discussion and proposals. At the high level panel discussions held last February with the participation of the EIB, the IFC, the IMF, the MOF, the Central Bank of Cyprus and the key banks there were some very clear positions which were available to banks as to how the would address their NPLs. The choice was to manage the balance sheets in house and to seek to improve the loan servicing. Other innovative solutions were ruled out because of the BRRD and the large gap between bid and offer prices on NPLs. Hence the process will continue and by negotiation the borrowers who co operate with banks will find solutions on an ad hoc basis.

    I would like though to suggest that although the AMC may off the table there is scope for government support. There is no case by the MOF to use new debt only to pay off old debt. The economy needs public investment to boost growth otherwise the period of sustainable growth required to reduce NPLs quickly will long. In this regard, and to answer in part your question about write offs of debt, the recent research on Stabilising & Healing the Irish Banking System, Policy lessons it is worth noting the lessons drawn. The are three key lessons:
    1. The NAMA set up and management was successful;
    2. Capital shortfall should be bottom up to identify the real needs of banks;
    3. When providing tax payers money the government should set policy targets for write offs of bad loans.

    I think point 3 shows the way forward and it is for the government to seek solutions for write offs, subject to state aid approval. There could be as proposed last year an issuance of zero coupon 20 years bond to banks in exchange of the bad loans of households who are in real distress and for the government to manage these loans via the government agency for social housing The zero coupon bond does not affect the sustainability of the public debt since the need to repay will only arise at redemption; it does affect the stock of public debt but not the debt service. The government should not find resistance from Parliament to get ratification for such debt since this will clearly be for the good of the banks, the borrowers and the economy at large. Such bonds would be eligible as liquid assets which banks have to hold with the Central bank.

  14. avatar
    Savvakis C Savvides on July 23, 2016 - (permalink)

    Dear TA,

    In the spirit of thinking aloud and in order to have a constructive discussion, I have to disagree with some of your assumptions:

    1. You say: ” It is in the bank’s interest (and hence the shareholders interest)”… What is in the bank’s interest does not necessarily mean it is in the shareholders’ interest. This is particularly not so in the case of banks where a small minority of shareholders come to control the banks’ huge balance sheet!

    2. I fail to follow your logic of how the introduction of an intermediary who adds no real value to a deal and who, as you say, demands a huge return on his money is going to make things any better for the distressed borrowers of a bank! Also, your numbers leave out what happens to the bank itself. The NPLs in Cyprus have a well below what is considered an adequate level of provisions. The recent report by the Central Bank quotes the level of booked provisions for NPLs at 37.2% or about €9.5b in total for all the banks (on an NPL total amount of about €25.4b)! The average level of provisions for Europe is about 50% and for the conditions of Cyprus one should at least add another 10%. This means that if a bank sells off the NPLs at the discounts you are talking about, the bank will need to be recapitalised immediately! The total amount of equity in all our banks together is only about €6b. Fitch is already warning that we need recapitalisation already if anything like a realistic level of provisions is applied. Incidentally, it also means that our banks are already in deep trouble as regards their recapitalisation needs. You do the math on that…

    3. Last but not least, whoever buys your loan or takes control of your collateral will not give you a better deal. He wants to maximise return and therefore he will throw the kitchen sink against you and your guarantors if he has to, to achieve that (mortgages, floating changes, personal guarantees, etc.).

    Although I agree with many of the things you say and the sentiment you express, I think that some of your assumptions are just not correct, especially with the suggestion that with the introduction of hedge funds and other intermediaries, things will get any better for the country. Things will get a better for the Cypriots if our Government was willing to tackle the problem head on, rather than expecting that the problem will solve itself or go away like a bad cold, just as other countries in a similar situation have done. No-one is suggesting it will be easy but at least this way we have a chance!

  15. avatar
    Sofronis Clerides on July 23, 2016 - (permalink)

    This article is an unfortunate illustration of the straw man fallacy. It refutes an argument that no-one has ever made (to my knowledge). Les and Savvakis claim that “The argument that private debt is not so important is both conceptually and empirically wrong”. But who has made that argument? Can you provide some evidence? Pretty much everyone I know is worried about the private debt burden and its impact on growth. I have talked about it myself several times, including recently at the Nicosia Economic Congress (https://sofronisclerides.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/2016-05-26-6th-nec-clerides-posted.pdf).

    Even more disappointingly, Les and Savvakis talk of a conspiracy to downplay the importance of debt:

    “The most incredible thing during these past three years of denial was the almost co-ordinated attempt of politicians in power, civil servants and the academia in general (with only few exceptions) to downplay the importance and even the existence of the problem of the enormous private debt at the very core of the real economy as being the major obstacle obstructing economic development and the road towards a sustained growth.”

    This is a serious accusation. It suggests that a large number of people (“experts”) have been conspiring to hide the truth from the public. I would have hoped that such a grave accusation would be accompanied by some pretty damning evidence. Alas, nothing. Not even the basic premise is true. Because no-one has been downplaying the retarding impact of the debt burden on growth. On the contrary, it has been on everyone’s mind from the very beginning.

    Perhaps Les and Savvakis (mostly Savvakis who has been making this point for years) have interpreted the lack of support for their proposals as an attempt to downplay the problem. That is the wrong interpretation. If someone disagrees with a proposed therapy, it does not mean that they deny the existence of the disease.

    Please let’s try and stick to the facts.

  16. avatar
    Savvakis C Savvides on July 24, 2016 - (permalink)

    Dear Sofronis,

    You are flattering yourself if you think that our reference to the lack of acknowledgement of private debt as having a major role in recessions and depressions has anything to do with what has any Cypriot academic (including you) has written or said. We refer to the work of great economists such as Fisher, Minsky and Kauffman among others and Keen who has provided a lot of the evidence and data to substantiate these theories. It is these economists’ theories and ideas about how private debt is causing a sustained deflationary disequilibrium we refer to but which nevertheless could not find their rightful place in mainstream economics.

    As far as your comments regarding what you call our “accusations” against the academia are concerned, as I replied to Stavros, it is only a statement of opinion that does not include all economists (and surely not an accusation-as you say) which stems from the facts. I will let the readers of this forum decide whether we are right or wrong to hold such opinion. As you say, I have written many times (9 articles at Stockwatch blog alone about this -including the current article I wrote with Les). And I admit that it did feel at times that I was a voice in the wilderness. In fact, I wonder whether all you economists who are regular contributors to this blog put together wrote as much and most significantly, stressed the importance of private debt in the context of Cyprus. Moreover, I can hardly remember any of you not praising Government policy one way or another. Which of course is your right to do. But you can’t have it both ways! You may now say that private debt was “on everyone’s mind from the very beginning” but it was surely not in your oral or written word.

    You also, rather cheekily if I may say, insinuate somehow that I blame others because my therapies were not adopted or supported. But my dear Sofronis, you have misunderstood that as well, as what I and Les talk about is the completely wrong diagnosis for the disease by academics in Cyprus, never mind the cure and therapies for it.

  17. avatar
    Leslie G Manison on July 24, 2016 - (permalink)

    Sofronis in defending Cyprus academics you have employed the old adage that “the best form of defense is to attack”.I am sure that Savvakis will defend well against your attacks.I would ask you to defend your comments by citing a written work by a Cyprus academic that highlights the huge private indebtedness of Cyprus as the major obstacle constraining the generation of sustained economic growth in the current envirronment of considerable deflation. Discussion of private debt problems,especially the challenge of reducing NPLs, have been made largely in the context of restoring financial stability and repairing bank balance sheets, rather than proposing solutions that can help highly-indebted enterprises be in a position to contribute to sustained economic growth.

  18. avatar
    Leslie G Manison on July 24, 2016 - (permalink)

    I wish to amend the last sentence of my comment to Sofronis to read. “Discussion of private debt problems , especially the challenge of reducing NPLs, have been made largely in the necessary context of restoring financial stability and repairing bank balance sheets, but proposing solutions that can help highly- indebted enterprises be in a position to contribute to sustained economic growth should be given urgent and serious consideration as well” Unfortunately, much of the discussion and reporting on private debt problems tends to view the reduction of total NPLs and private debt as ends in themselves.

  19. avatar
    Kax on July 27, 2016 - (permalink)

    The reason people do not speak about private debt as much is because they is no one solution.All stakeholders,banks,government,debtors are sitting on a multibillion loss .This has to be split not in a fair way which is impossible but according to the ability of evey party to take a loss.The way I see it is as follows

    1.Private debt is inflated by illegal charges mostly on NPL.Remove them by law.
    2.Assets to debtors must be sold,preferably to their lenders.This is already happening with the help of government incentives.This reduces the capital needs of a bank as risk is reduced.
    3.Loans must be sold to funds where possible.Whether the loan is held by a bank belonging to funds or directly by funds makes no difference politically.However banks are reluctant to write off loans and this is an efficient way to reduce loans without admitting you are writing them off.
    4.It is critical if debtors have positive or negative net worth and if they have earning power.The value of assets must be maximised by actively managing mortgaged property by banks or funds.
    5.New investors can buy smaller banks and absorb their share of the loss.
    6.Banks must continue making “excess”profits on performing loans.
    7.In order for banks to be able to take a hit they must be allowed by SSM to put a value on assets held in the occupied area.
    8.If all the above are done over time(a few years) private debt will fall,banks will have potential to make real profits and can attract investors at reasonable price in a new round of capitalization.

  20. avatar
    Savvakis C Savvides on July 31, 2016 - (permalink)

    Just to understand what ex Governor’s Orphanides is actually saying, does he mean that if we could avoid the bail-in everything would have been just fine? We would have a thriving economy and perhaps a fantastic international financial centre “miracle” still blooming and competing perhaps with London?

    Mistakes have indeed been made and perhaps he is also right that the bail-in could have been avoided (at least the way it did happen, whereby incompetent politicians in Cyprus facilitated those who wanted to impose it). But is this Mr. Orphanides the problem with Cyprus? What about that under your watch the banking system bloated and went astray with the banks dumping 3-4 times the size of the GDP of the country on wasteful projects and loading Cypriots with an unsustainable and non-viable debt! That is the real problem Athanasios. And that is all your doing!

    • avatar
      Anonymous on August 1, 2016 - (permalink)

      Good point. Orph appears to be in denial. He refuses to accept that the banks went bust under his watch, hence all the recycled nonsense about PIMCO and BlackRock. But he is also inconsistent because of his twisted story about Laiki and the Greek branches, which switch from healthy to insolvent depending on which myth he is putting forward.

      The bottom line is that he wants to shoot the messengers who brought the bad news. If only he could stay so that he could continue to hide the problems under the carpet for a few more years.

      The bail in would certainly have been avoided if parliament voted that deposit levy, but I am not convinced that would have been a better way forward. There’s no economic rationale for taxing depositors at healthy banks and even less for violating the provisions of deposit insurance law. Moreover, taxing the poor to protect the rich isn’t good social policy either.

  21. avatar
    costas on August 2, 2016 - (permalink)

    Dear anonymous

    I see your point about the unfairness of hitting all banks to rescue the few big “sinners”. I used to work for one of the small banks.

    But if you take a look at the big picture, i believe it would still have been a better option for all banks on the island to share the damage. Although it would not have been fair on the depositors of the banks that did not require capital support, the long term effects on the economy as a whole would have been milder had all banks had a share in the haircut (i.e. the first bill that got rejected by parliament).

    What we are now facing is those long term consequences of not agreeing the first bill: higher and more long-term unemployment, slower economic recovery, more difficult conditions for households to reduce or servise their debt.

    With all these in mind, I feel that those depositors of the other banks that have not had their deposits haircut are actually also suffering. As econonic agents that they are, they operate and live in an economy that is in a far worse shape had the first bill been approved. In my mind, that is actually more unfair on them.

  22. avatar
    Leslie G Manison on August 2, 2016 - (permalink)

    Policy makers in the G20 and Eurogroup do not seem or want to understand that a substantial bail-in of bondholders and depositors of a systemically-important bank as happened in Cyprus is a never-ending process resulting in a downward spiral in nominal GDP and domestic demand.Such a bail-in takes spending power and subsequently income out of the private economy resulting in increasing difficulties in repaying loans in a highly-indebted economy such as Cyprus. NPLs mount and banks need more provisions for actual and potential losses on loans leading to a need for more capital from domestic entities and bank shareholders.This process further depresses domestic demand and nominal GDP, the latter fall often reflected by considerable deflation.
    This downward spiral can only be broken through a sizeable increase in foreign demand and an injection of foreign capital into banks as is occurring in Cyprus these days with tourism receipts rising to record high levels and the EBRD, Wargaming and Wilbur Ross etc. investing in Cyprus banks.
    But the increase in tourism and foreign demand can not be sustained without a sustained rise in the capacity of tourist enterprises (already this summer stretched to full capacity) involving much domestic investment which banks will need to contribute to by converting considerable enterprise debt to limited equity participation? Similarly will foreign entities maintain and even raise their equity investments in domestic banks as the huge private debt overhang highlighted by extremely high level of NPLs at banks and need for much greater recapitalisation to cover provisions as pointed out above by Savvakis persists? Sustaining economic growth in Cyprus will require that the huge private debt problem be addressed and dealt with substantial but ultimately productive debt relief so that the main obstacles to prolonged and healthy economic growth can be removed.

  23. avatar
    Sofronis Clerides on August 3, 2016 - (permalink)

    Dear Savvaki and Les,

    I’m not sure where you saw the attacks. You are the ones doing the attacking. You are firing accusations indiscriminately at certain groups (and you seem to include me). All I did was to point out the severity of the accusations and the lack of accompanying evidence.

    So I ask again: you claim that people downplay the importance of private debt. Please be specific. Which people are you talking about? And where is your evidence?

    (Note: if people don’t shout from the rooftops about a problem, it doesn’t mean they don’t acknowledge its existence. It might be – as kax pointed out – that they don’t have any easy solutions to propose. I personally talk about this problem every chance I get and point out that it’s going to be a long process.)

    Savvaki, you talk about “the completely wrong diagnosis for the disease by academics in Cyprus”. I wasn’t aware of the existence of an “academic diagnosis” of the disease. Please let me know where it’s available so that I can read it.

    (My own diagnosis is here, by the way: http://ucy.ac.cy/erc/documents/Clerides_3-35.pdf. I would be happy to hear your comments.)

    On the issues raised in this article, I find myself in broad agreement with Erol’s assessment of the situation.

    One last point. Being an academic gives me the great luxury of not having to be anyone’s apologist. I have often publicly criticized government policies, most recently the handling of the real estate tax and SOE reform (see http://oikonomein.clerides.com/2015/06/we-can-do-better-with-soe-reform.html).

    • avatar
      Savvakis C Savvides on August 8, 2016 - (permalink)

      Sofronis,

      No one really cares what you or I think. This is not personal, as I said a few times before. I will therefore not reply to your rather personal comments. In fact, I think both Les and have already clearly stated our position in previous comments. You are entitled to your own opinion, as I am sure you will agree, so are we.

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