Monday, March 18, 2013

The taxes due to be imposed on savings deposited in banks in Cyprus represent a response to the vulnerability of the banking system in that country. They have been defended on the grounds that depositors would ultimately bear the burden of any rebalancing. True though that might be, there are some serious problems with this type of solution.

The legitimacy of any tax rests on the idea that people understand that they will be liable to pay the tax if they do certain things. If I earn income, I expect to pay income tax; if I purchase goods and services, I expect to pay value added tax, excise duties and the like. It is not usual, or fair, to introduce new taxes where the payments are made by people who can reasonably be supposed to have behaved differently had they known the tax was on the way. One might describe the tax as legalised (but not legitimate) theft.

The proposed Cypriot tax is being imposed on all deposits - including those below €100K which are supposedly protected from bank collapses. It is not, therefore, a tax primarily aimed at big Russian depositors, as has been claimed (although many of the large deposits do of course come from Russia). One might describe it as theft from the poor.

The tax sends a signal to all savers in Europe that their savings are, quite simply, not safe. One hopes that the furore that this has attracted will prompt a rethink and that small depositors will be protected. Otherwise, the authorities may well have triggered bank runs throughout southern Europe. It is not a smart move.