The Euro: Thinking The Unthinkable

by Andrew Stuttaford

Some mistakes cannot be undone. I’ve always thought that the euroskeptic dream of a mass break-up of the euro was just that: a dream. The same goes (alas) for the idea that one of the weaker (Germany might be a different matter) Eurozone countries could simply quit Brussels’s irresponsibly speculative monetary union.


Over at the Economist, however, they are beginning to think the unthinkable:



…Introducing a new currency would be difficult but not impossible. A government could simply pass a law saying that the wages of public workers, welfare cheques and government debts would henceforth be paid in a new currency, converted at an official fixed rate. Such legislation would also require all other financial dealings—private-sector pay, mortgages, stock prices, bank loans and so on—to be switched to the new currency.


The changeover would have to be swift and complete to limit financial chaos. Bank deposits would have to be converted at the same time, and the same rate, as overdrafts and mortgages to keep the value of banks’ debts in line with their assets. When Argentina broke its peg with the dollar in 2001, it decreed that bank deposits should be switched at a more favourable exchange rate than loans, in an effort to appease savers. This imposed losses on an already crippled banking system, and led to a sharp contraction in domestic credit.


The central bank would have to distribute new notes and coins fast. It would also have to set interest rates, and would need a lodestar, probably an inflation target, to guide it. Whatever the official exchange rate at a changeover, the new currency would quickly find a market level against the euro and other currencies. A new D-mark would be expected to rise against the now-abandoned euro; a new drachma or punt would trade at a big discount to its official changeover rate—a devaluation, in effect.


The switch to the euro was smooth, but it was planned for years in great detail and in co-operation among countries. The reverse operation would be far messier. The mere prospect of euro break-up could cause bank runs in weak economies as depositors scrambled to move savings abroad to avoid forced conversion. If Germany were the leaver, it would face an inward flood.


To prevent such a drain, a weak country thinking of leaving the euro would have to impose caps on bank withdrawals, other forms of capital controls, and perhaps even restrictions on foreign travel. That might not work in a region as integrated as Europe—and if it did it would depress the economy by limiting the circulation of cash for commerce. It would also cut the country off from foreign credit, because foreign firms and banks would fear that their money would be trapped. Trade would suffer badly, at least for a while.


A departing country would also have to prepare for legal challenges. A change in the currency in both weak and strong countries would impose devastating losses on businesses and depositors at home and abroad. Savers who could not get their money out of banks before its forced conversion would not be happy to be paid in a devalued currency. Many would sue, as happened in Argentina. The legal uncertainty would further hamper the banks, which would be loth to extend credit for fear they might yet be forced to make depositors whole.


Foreign banks and pension funds holding weak economies’ euro-denominated government bonds would suffer an effective default. They might sue, too. A sovereign might expect to win its legal battles if it drafted its conversion laws well and if it could assert the primacy of its law over European law. But the European dimension would at the very least mean that costly legal battles would drag on.


All the while a government seeking to replace the euro with a devalued currency could scarcely rely on bond sales to finance its operations. But such a country would have long been cut off from capital markets anyway. The prospect of monetary independence would give it new options. In the run-up to passing a conversion law, the government could pay some of its bills, including wages, by issuing small-denomination IOUs, which could be traded for goods and services. These would form a proto-currency that would trade at a discount to the remaining euros in circulation—a shadow price of the devaluation to come. Since the money supply would be shrinking fast, as euro deposits fled the country, this sort of paper would be accepted readily. Scrip issued by the province of Buenos Aires circulated freely months before Argentina’s dollar peg broke.



Read the whole thing. That it has been even been written is revealing of the times in which we now live. It’s also worth noting that a key element in some of the most dramatic economic recoveries in recent years, that of Sweden in the 1990s, and, later, those of Brazil, Thailand, Russia and (although it now appears to be souring, thanks to that country’s dysfunctional politics) Argentina, were on the back of major devaluations. It’s early days yet, but the same may prove to be true of poor Iceland. Unfortunately, for so long as they remain in the Eurozone, that option will not be open to Ireland, Greece and the other occupants of the PIIGS sty.

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