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Salmon: The Dijsselbloem Principle

NEW YORK ( Reuters Blogs) -- If a gaffe is what happens when a politician accidentally tells the truth, what's the word for when a politician deliberately tells the truth? Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the current head of the Eurogroup, held a formal, on-the-record joint interview with Reuters and the FT Monday, saying that the messy and chaotic Cyprus solution is a model for future bailouts.

Those comments are now being walked back, because it's generally not a good idea for high-ranking policymakers to say the kind of things that could precipitate bank runs across much of the eurozone. But that doesn't mean Dijsselbloem's initial comments weren't true; indeed, it's notable that no one's denying them outright.

Dijsselbloem's interview can be summed up simply: We're not bailing out banks any more. Instead, we're going to let them fail.

When a European bank runs into difficulties in the future, under this view, the EU is not going to help bail it out. Instead, it will go down a list: The bank's executives come first, then its shareholders, then its bondholders, and finally its uninsured depositors. All of them will take losses before the national or European authorities step in with bailout money.

In principle, this makes perfect sense. Given the choice between Ireland and Iceland -- between guaranteeing all bank creditors, on the one hand, or just letting the banks fail, on the other -- the latter seems to inflict pain where it's warranted, on irresponsible lenders, including foreign lenders, rather than on the country as a whole.

What's more, what you might call the Dijsselbloem Principle does help to remind people that depositors are creditors, and that when you deposit money with a bank, you're lending that money to an entity that might not pay you back. Deposit insurance is basically a government guarantee backstopping that loan: If the bank can't pay you back, the government will. But deposit insurance is only there for insured depositors -- it can't mission-creep its way into backstopping uninsured depositors and even the bank itself.

Such a principle would have consequences, of course, both intended and unintended. Paul Murphy provides the requisite parade of horribles:

"It's a direct call to depositors across the eurozone -- retail and corporate alike -- to move cash now and spread it across a portfolio of the largest available banks. It's direct advice to dump bank debt. And it's a direct invitation to speculate that the EFSF, the ESM, and the rest of the alphabetic bailout soup is going to be discarded in favour of calling on depositors' money across the Continent."

Much more unnerving than the potential future consequences of the new policy, however, was the immediate reaction of bank stocks to Dijsselbloem’s comments: the Euro Stoxx Banks index fell almost 4% on his comments.

Which brings up what you might call the Other Dijsselbloem Principle: You can do anything you like, just so long as it doesn't spook the markets. This was the crucially important background to the negotiations between Cyprus and the EU: The Europeans were emboldened to be tough on Cyprus by the fact that global markets seemed utterly unconcerned about what was going on in an economy that accounts for about 0.15% of European GDP, and shrinking.

After all, anything that the Eurogroup did in Cyprus would have set a dangerous precedent somehow, even if they had simply capitulated and agreed to a full 17 billion euro bailout of both the sovereign and the banks. We still don't know what kind of capital controls Cyprus might impose on its banks when they reopen for business in the morning: Those controls ensure that a Cypriot euro is not fungible with a German euro, and as such represent Cyprus' first steps towards fully fledged exit from the eurozone.

Indeed, for all that Dijsselbloem’s comments caused the most immediate market reaction, traders with a slightly longer-term time horizon would do well to pay attention to the real powers in Cyprus: people like lawmaker Nicholas Papadopoulos, Nobel laureate Christopher Pissarides, and even Archbishop Chrysostomos II, the head of the Cypriot Orthodox Church. All of them are talking openly about exiting the eurozone -- the one degree of freedom that Cyprus really has, now that the troika has imposed austerity, bank resolution and everything else onto the island from above.

Think about it this way: Exiting the euro is a bit like the U.S. hitting its debt ceiling and defaulting on its Treasury bills. Both of them are meant to be unthinkable, impossible. But both of them are thought about at length, and entirely possible in theory. What's more, the opportunity is always there. No country has exited the euro in the past, just as the Treasury has not defaulted in the past. But even if the probability at any given point in time is small, over a long enough time horizon it still grows. And right now, the probability of a country exiting the euro is not small: No country has ever been more likely to exit than Cyprus is right now.

Dijsselbloem's interview Monday was undoubtedly a prime piece of political incompetence: There's no reason at all for anybody in the Eurogroup to be drawing broader lessons from Cyprus at this point. The market can speculate about the Cypriot precedent all it likes; it behooves no politician to to be clear about what they think it means, least of all the Eurogroup president. Maybe, in a few months' time, when the Cyprus chaos has died down, the EU could start putting out extremely long and dry papers about what has been learned from Cyprus, along with a detailed look at the costs and benefits of letting banks fail rather than bailing them out. But if you're making policy on the fly in Cyprus, the last thing you want to do is turn that cobbled-together precedent into something semibinding on the rest of the continent -- whatever the policy might be.

Still, the toothpaste is out of the tube now, and the traders selling off bank shares were acting entirely rationally. The chances of European banks being allowed to fail are higher now than they were pre-Cyprus. As a result, we should expect uninsured deposits to continue to flow from the periphery of Europe toward the center. Which in turn means extra pressure on Italian and Spanish banks, just when it's least needed.

-- Written by Felix Salmon in New York.

Read more of Felix's blogs at Reuters.

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