Cyprus is on the verge of an unprecedented financial experiment: imposing controls on money transfers in an economy that doesn’t have its own currency.
Countries from Argentina to Iceland have used similar measures in the past to defend against devaluation. Being part of the euro zone may make it harder for the Mediterranean island to enforce restrictions, as any money that leaves the banking system can be taken out of Cyprus without losing value.
A rush of money out of Cyprus would shift more financing responsibility to the European Central Bank, which provides about 10 billion euros of emergency loans to the country’s lenders. After 30 billion euros, the ECB would have to lower its standards for the collateral it demands from Cypriot banks, Panigirtzoglou said. With deposit flight and rising loan losses in Cyprus and Greece, the ECB could lose money on the funds it lends.
Krona-denominated bonds left from the boom era cannot be converted to foreign currency when they mature. The proceeds need to be reinvested in krona assets. That has created two foreign-exchange rates for the island’s currency -- an official one traded domestically and one offshore.
Argentina restricted bank withdrawals in 2001, when it was faced with a banking crisis following the government’s debt default. Three months later the country had to abandon its currency peg to the dollar, which it had maintained for a decade. The government imposed losses on deposits through forced conversion of dollar savings to pesos at unfavorable rates.
Cyprus’s three biggest publicly traded banks had a total of 6.5 billion euros of losses in 2011 after writing down the value of their Greek bond holdings. They have also been bleeding on their loans to companies and individuals in Greece, which is in its fifth year of a contracting economy.