A few years ago, Cyprus announced it would accept a €10 billion bailout package on condition of imposing a one-time levy on bank deposits. The initial agreement, which included a 6.75 percent levy on deposit balances less than 100,000 euros and a 9.9 percent levy on deposit balances in excess of 100,000 euros, was largely unexpected. A BBC headline described “Shock in Cyprus as savers face bailout levy.” Others feared it “could be setting an entirely disastrous precedent for the entire European banking system.” (A modified version of the plan ultimately saw no levies issued on deposit balances less than 100,000 euros. Balances in excess of 100,000 euros were converted at just 37.5 cents on the euro.)
In a paper forthcoming at the Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, Alex Salter and I consider the extent to which the Cyprus bailout announcement encouraged some to reconsider bitcoin.
The basic idea is straightforward. Deposits are typically thought to be pretty safe. With the bailout announcement, those in Cyprus learned that their deposits were not as safe as they had expected. To the extent that it set a precedent for other countries, depositors elsewhere might have reached similar conclusions. With new information about the riskiness of traditional deposits, depositors are more likely to move to alternatives. Alternatives, that is, like bitcoin.
We were not the first to suggest the bailout announcement could tip the balance toward bitcoin for some depositors. Tero Kuittinen observed bitcoin app downloads soaring in Spain following the announcement and connected the dots:
Bitcoin Gold shot up in the Spanish iPhone Finance category from 498 to 72, and another app called Bitcoin Ticker zoomed from 526 to 52 in just one day. A leading service called Bitcoin App jumped from 194 to 151 between Friday and Sunday as Spaniards brooded over the Cyprus crisis.
But Kuittinen offered nothing like a systematic analysis of the question.
To consider Kuittinen’s idea, we collected download rank data for all fifteen bitcoin apps available at the time of the announcement for ten countries (Cyprus, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain, France, Germany, United Kingdom, and United States) over the seven-day periods before and after the bailout announcement. We then use an established technique to estimate an index of downloads for each country considered. In general, we find that:
- Bitcoin app downloads increased following the announcement
- The observed effect is not especially pronounced in those euro area countries thought to have had troubled banking systems at the time.
- The observed effect is largely driven by downloads in Cyprus, Italy, Spain, and the US.
Table 1. Average Download Index of Bitcoin Apps, by Country
To see the magnitude of the shock, consider the results presented in Table 1. We estimate that bitcoin app downloads increased across the board by nearly 11 percent following the announcement. The estimated effect was largest in Spain, where bitcoin app downloads increased by roughly 45 percent. Italy saw downloads increase by nearly 18 percent following the bailout announcement. These results suggest that at least some depositors are willing to consider alternatives when they lose faith in the banking system.