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Hotel California

26 October 2011 By Hugo Dixon

The euro zone is like Hotel California, UBS wrote in a report published in September. “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave,” it said, quoting the Eagles song. A British businessman, Simon Wolfson, has now offered a 250,000 pound prize to the person who can come up with the most convincing explanation of how an orderly exit from the single currency is possible.

The problem is the word “orderly”. There are lots of scenarios where a country such as Greece could quit the euro in a disorderly fashion, destroying its own economy and that of its neighbours as well as possibly plunging the world into a recession. But how is it possible to do this without triggering financial Armageddon?

The first difficulty stems from the fact that an exit couldn’t happen overnight. There is no legal procedure for a country to quit. Joining was supposed to be an irrevocable commitment.

Treaties can, of course, be renegotiated or broken. But this couldn’t happen rapidly – or, more to the point, secretly. There are 17 members of the euro zone; and another 10 European Union members such as the United Kingdom, which don’t use the single currency. If Greece wanted to reintroduce the drachma, it would have to secure the unanimous agreement of these other nations. It is also inconceivable that it could take such a momentous decision without discussing it in parliament. Predict weeks, if not months, of heated wrangling.

Such debate would frighten the horses. Many depositors have already removed their savings from Greek banks. An open discussion about Athens leaving the euro would trigger a stampede. The whole point of bringing back the drachma would be to devalue it in the hope of making Greek industry competitive. Analysts think the initial fall might be 50 percent. If so, anybody patriotic enough to keep their money in a Greek bank would lose half their savings.

Transitional mayhem

Athens could then do three things: allow its banks to collapse; appeal to its euro partners for help; or impose controls on how much money people could take out of its banks.

Allowing banks to collapse in a disorderly fashion would be mad. It would be a sure-fire way to cause economic chaos and social disorder. The recent street protests would seem like a tea party.

Getting help from the euro zone would be ideal. But why would its euro partners want to bail out Greece’s banks, if the country was on the point of quitting the euro? The European Central Bank has already stopped making new loans directly to some Greek banks because they have run out of high-quality collateral. Instead, it has authorised the Greek central bank to provide liquidity, with Athens theoretically on the hook for any losses. But if Greece was about to quit the euro, the ECB would be worried that it would never get paid back. It would hardly want to authorise yet more lending as this could just increase the size of its future losses.

So Athens’ only choice would be to control how much people could take out of their accounts. It would be like wartime – with savings rationed instead of butter and bread. This wouldn’t be as bad as allowing banks to collapse. But it would still plunge the country deeper into misery.

Brave new economy

The hope, of course, would be that Greece would eventually rebound on the back of a super-competitive drachma. Northern Europeans would flock to its beaches to enjoy half-price retsina and feta. Maybe. But there would be two other questions: how would the government finance itself; and how would inflation be contained?

Athens has too much debt. The latest forecast from the Troika (made up of the International Monetary Fund, the ECB and the European Commission) is that debt will reach 183 percent of GDP by the end of next year. That debt load will loom even bigger if Greece quit the euro. In drachma terms, assuming again a 50 percent devaluation, debt would rocket to 366 percent of GDP. The government has to default even if it stays in the euro; but the extent of the haircut would be bigger if it quits.

Greece also has a primary budget deficit: it is earning less than it spends even before interest payments. A unilateral default would make it a pariah state. Nobody would lend it money to finance its ongoing deficits. That would provoke an even more severe recession in the short run. The government would also be tempted to print lots of new drachmas to fill the hole in its coffers, fuelling inflation and debasing the currency.

To avoid such a nightmare scenario, Greece would need to secure an orderly default if it quit the euro. The best hope of achieving that would be to cut a new agreement with the IMF. Most but not all of its debts would be cancelled. But it would have to agree to tight fiscal and monetary policies to make sure it didn’t run up new debts or descend into hyperinflation. In return, it would get some hard currency to manage the transition. But even with such a balm, the journey would be painful.

Vicious contagion

Unfortunately, the problems with a Greek exit from the euro would not stop with Greece. Contagion would be far more virulent than anything witnessed so far.

Seeing what was happening to Greek depositors, savers in Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy – and possibly even France and other countries – would run a mile. They would take their euros and deposit them in German, Dutch or Finnish banks. To stop a large chunk of Europe’s banking system collapsing, the ECB would have to authorise unlimited supplies of liquidity for an indefinite period of time.

The key decision would be whether to let any other countries go the way of Greece. Portugal would be seen as next in line because of its need to improve competitiveness. But Lisbon would probably not want to quit. Given that there’s no time to waste in the midst of a bank run, the least bad option would be to rally around all the remaining euro countries and insist they were permanent members of the club.

It might, though, be sensible to take the opportunity of a Greek exit from the euro to arrange simultaneously an orderly default of Portugal and perhaps Ireland while keeping them in the single currency. If their debt levels were cut to more sustainable levels, they would be in a better shape to withstand the whirlwind unleashed by Athens’ departure.

Wherever the line was drawn, it would have to be defended to the hilt. This wouldn’t just be about protecting depositors. Bond investors would believe more departures from the single currency were on their way. Portugal and Ireland don’t matter for the time being because they are supported by euro zone and IMF bailout programmes which don’t require them to tap the market for new money. But Italy and Spain, which are already suffering jitters, would be shut out of the market.

The convulsions from a bankruptcy of Italy, whose debt is nearly 2 trillion euros, would be so seismic that it shouldn’t be attempted unless there really is no alternative. But rescues by other governments wouldn’t be possible either. The region’s bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, isn’t remotely big enough.

Financial jiggery-pokery – such as turning the EFSF into an insurance company to leverage its firepower – might just work in the current circumstances. But it wouldn’t have credibility if Greece was quitting the euro and there were bank runs across the continent. The best way to hold the line would be for the ECB to provide unlimited supplies of liquidity to struggling nations by massively expanding its purchases of Italian, Spanish and other sovereign bonds in the secondary market.

The good thing about the ECB is that there is theoretically no ceiling on how many euros it can print. The problem is that massive liquidity injections to both banks and governments could remove the incentive for lenders and countries to manage their affairs wisely. Once the storm had passed, it would be best to separate the illiquid institutions or governments from the insolvent ones and find a way of restructuring the debts of the latter in an orderly fashion.

But faced with the choice between an imploding euro zone or underwriting delinquency, the ECB would be best advised at least initially to plump for the latter even if that would involve eating its words. Still, there’s no disguising that it would be an unpleasant outcome.

An orderly exit from the euro is a virtual oxymoron. There are ways to minimise the damage – principally by rationing access to savings during the transition, orchestrating an orderly default of the country that quits and unleashing the ECB as a lender of last resort to those that remain. Even with such a programme, the economic damage would be huge. Without it, staying in Hotel California would seem like a holiday. The euro zone would become a towering inferno with everybody scrambling for the exits.


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