I am on a plane - long-haul over the Pacific - and someone asked me to spell out what I thought would happen with a Greek sovereign default. As this is drafted on a plane it is designed to outline extreme views (you know the ones after two glasses of wine). If people want to explore more modest views that is for the comments. Still all options look bad.
I see two broad variants - both of course stick most of the losses on Germany and France. Some variants are totally disastrous.
Variant 1 - the Argentine option: Default and de-peg the currency.
When Argentina defaulted not only did the government default but they forced a private default. If you had a debt in US Dollars in Argentina prior to the default you were forced to pay it back in Peso. Indeed it was illegal to make payment in US dollars.
Likewise if you had a US dollar asset you got back Peso. A dollar deposit in Citigroup in Buenos Aires became a peso deposit. If you really wanted to keep your dollars you needed to make your Citigroup deposit in New York.
The forced private sector default was necessary for Argentina. The Argentine banks all had lots of US dollar funding. If you devalued without forcing their default then they would all have uncontrolled defaults (a true disaster) and the country would lose its institutions. Telefonica Argentina would have failed too - failing to replay USD debts.
The same applies in Greece. If the Greek Government were to devalue the new Drachma (to perhaps a third the value of the Euro) then the banks (which are loaded with Greek Sovereign paper) would default. Even Hellenic Telecom would default because they would be forced to repay their billions of Euro borrowings whilst collecting only Drachma phone bills.
The Argentine economy was doing quite nicely after the devaluation. The lesson was that devaluation worked - provided you simultaneously forced private sector default.
If you were Greece you would take this option without hesitation.
However this option has explosive implications for Europe. You see a bank deposit in Athens is going to turn your Euros into Drachma. Overnight it will lose 70 percent of its valuation.
So it has to be done quickly and with an element of surprise (as per Argentina when most people did not get their dollars over the border). Without surprise people will rush their money to Deutsche Bank in Munich.
One weekend we will just find that the Greeks have done it.
But now suppose Greece does pull this trick. The day after we have a Drachma - deposits are in Drachma. We might print a single 10 drachma note and allow it to settle against the Euro - then over time print more. This should work for Greece.
Now if you are Irish or Italian or Portuguese (or even Spanish) you know the rules. You get to get your Euro out of the PIGS and into the core (Germany) as fast as possible. So max all your credit cards (for cash), draw all your bank deposits and load them in the boot of your car and make the drive to Switzerland or Germany. Somewhere safe. Otherwise you are going to lose half the value the day that the rest of the PIGS do a Greece.
And this bank run – a run including tens of thousands of Italians driving their Fiats - will surely blow apart every Italian bank. And their Euro-skeloritic compatriots will sign the death knell for for all their banks too.
If you are going to go the devaluation route you are going to have to do it all at once. Like the big-bank weekend (maybe coinciding with a week long bank holiday) in which all core European countries get their own currency back.
There is a precedent. It is not a pretty one. When the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed there was a single currency over a huge area covering much of what is now Euroland. In this case the rather Germanic Austrians were in charge (or rather were in charge until their empire collapsed).
What they did was put troops on all the borders and made it illegal to take cash (or wire cash!) across borders. Then all Austro-Marks in each country was stamped - converted to Drachma for Greece, Marks for Germany, Peseta for Spain or whatever the currencies of the day were [If someone remembers the 1918 border splits better than me they are welcome to say...]
In this conception all Spanish debts become Peseta debts. All German debts become Mark debts. All Greek debts become Drachma debts. Unstamped currency goes worthless.
If you are going to split the currency I see no alternative to a big bang - and if you do that I see no alternative to troops at the border stopping transfers (and wire transfers) because shifting cash North looks so profitable against a sudden devaluation. Suddenly – and against all historic hope – its time again to guard the French-German (and every other European border) with troops for a week whilst the money is stamped.
Note however almost every country borrowed in hard currency (Marks) and got to repay in soft currency (Drachma). This is a scheme which shifts the loss home to Germany and with little compensating benefit except that they get their beloved Mark back. Its a scheme that is way better for the periphery because they get to keep their institutions. In two years they should bounce back like Argentina bounced back after their default.
Unilateral Greek default and devaluation without planning for the periphery to do the same - well that is a true mess. Too ugly almost to think about - and it would be unilateral for less than a week. The rest of Europe falls into that abyss with maximum movement of deposits and cash in the meantime.
The second variant on Greek default. Greece defaults and stays in the Euro
The second variant on Greek default is the one that Germany prefers – Greece defaults and stays on the Euro. (Credit Agricole also prefers this.*)
In the second variant Greece has a huge problem after the default - which is that its banks are insolvent. They own a whole lot of Greek Paper. Moreover Hellenic Telecom does not look that great either.
The recession goes from bad to worse and the government deficit goes from bad to worse. The Germans wind up owning the banks and the telephone company as partial offset to their losses lending to them. The Greek Institutions are captured by the Germans. (All your base are belong to us.)
They also wind up getting paid a little more as Greek austerity - as long as it lasts and that might be a long time - partially reduces German losses but at huge social costs.
The Eurozone becomes really dysfunctional - with the whole periphery totally unable to work their way out and having lost all their key institutions to the Germans who neither know how to run them nor really want them.
Moreover Greece stays expensive and unproductive and becomes more socially fractious. The likelihood of them staying the the Eurozone would be pretty low. (After all what have the Germans ever done for me!)
Europe would be held together by a massive and compulsory German aid budget. If they can't get that agreed on on day dot (and Merkel and the German constitutional court are not of that mind) then my guess is that is is in Greece's interest to go the Argentine route and let the rest of Europe fend for themselves.
And for that Europe will need troops on borders. Armed and dangerous.
Bring out the guns.
*I have a known partiality to that stock but do not own it at the moment...
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