The surprise decision by euro zone leaders to part-fund a bailout of Cyprus by taxing bank deposits sent shockwaves through financial markets on Monday, with shares and the bonds of struggling euro zone governments tumbling.
The bloc struck a deal on Saturday to hand Cyprus rescue loans worth 10 billion euros ($13 billion), but defied warnings - including from the European Central Bank - and imposed a levy that would see those with cash in the island's banks lose between 6.75 and 9.9 percent of their money.
The initial response of investors was unambiguous. Shares lurched lower, the euro fell to a new three-month low, while safe-haven assets such as gold and German government bonds jumped.
The cost of insuring the debt of even high-quality European banks against default also rose sharply with analysts citing fears the decision could spark contagion across peripheral regions with the potential for widespread outflows of deposits.
"If I were a saver, certainly in Spain or maybe Italy, I think I'd be looking askance at these measures and think this could yet happen to me," Peter Dixon, global financial economist at Commerzbank said.
Cyprus is an incredibly small country. It's smaller by area than Hawaii and has the same GDP as the state of Vermont yet, it's having a massive impact on the markets as individuals make a run on banks and investors pull out their money. Europeans in stronger countries like Germany are asking if this could happen to them and here in the United States, people should be asking the same question.
As a reminder, the United States government has been eying and researching how Americans use their 401k plans for quite some time now. Recently we saw the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggest the government help "manage" retirement plans.
The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is weighing whether it should take on a role in helping Americans manage the $19.4 trillion they have put into retirement savings, a move that would be the agency’s first foray into consumer investments.
“That’s one of the things we’ve been exploring and are interested in in terms of whether and what authority we have,” bureau director Richard Cordray said in an interview. He didn’t provide additional details.
The bureau’s core concern is that many Americans, notably those from the retiring Baby Boom generation, may fall prey to financial scams, according to three people briefed on the CFPB’s deliberations who asked not to be named because the matter is still under discussion.
The retirement savings business in the U.S. is dominated by a group of companies that handle record-keeping and management of investments in tax-advantaged vehicles like 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts. The group includes Fidelity Investments, JPMorgan Chase & Co.(JPM), Charles Schwab Corp.(SCHW) and T. Rowe Price Group Inc.(TROW) Americans held $19.4 trillion in retirement assets as of Sept. 30, 2012, according to the Investment Company Institute, an industry association; about $3.5 trillion of that was in 401(k) plans.
In February, the Washington Times went so far as to ask "is your 401k about to be nationalized?"