Europe’s crisis to date is a series of supposedly “decisive” turning points that each turned out to be just another step down a steep hill. Greece’s upcoming election on June 17 is another such moment. While the so-called “pro-bailout” forces may prevail in terms of parliamentary seats, some form of new currency will soon flood the streets of Athens. It is already nearly impossible to save Greek membership in the euro area: depositors flee banks, taxpayers delay tax payments, and companies postpone paying their suppliers – either because they can’t pay or because they expect soon to be able to pay in cheap drachma.
The troika of the European Commission (EC), European Central Bank (ECB), and International Monetary Fund (IMF) has proved unable to restore the prospect of recovery in Greece, and any new lending program would run into the same difficulties….
Faced with five years of recession, more than 20 percent unemployment, further cuts to come, and a stream of failed promises from politicians inside and outside the country, a political backlash seems only natural. With IMF leaders, EC officials, and financial journalists floating the idea of a “Greek exit” from the euro, who can now invest in or sign long-term contracts in Greece? Greece’s economy can only get worse.
Some European politicians are now telling us that an orderly exit for Greece is feasible under current conditions, and Greece will be the only nation that leaves. They are wrong. Greece’s exit is simply another step in a chain of events that leads towards a chaotic dissolution of the euro zone.
I still think that’s too definitive a prediction, but note that our old friend Target2 has come back into focus:
During the next stage of the crisis, Europe’s electorate will be rudely awakened to the large financial risks which have been foisted upon them in failed attempts to keep the single currency alive. When Greece quits the euro, its government will default on approximately 121 billion euros of debt to official creditors, and about 27 billion euros owed to the IMF.
More importantly and less known to German taxpayers, Greece will also default on 155 billion euros directly owed to the euro system (comprised of the ECB and the 17 national central banks in the euro zone). This includes 110 billion euros provided automatically to Greece through the Target2 payments system — which handles settlements between central banks for countries using the euro. As depositors and lenders flee Greek banks, someone needs to finance that capital flight, otherwise Greek banks would fail. This role is taken on by other euro area central banks, which have quietly lent large funds, with the balances reported in the Target2 account. The vast bulk of this lending is, in practice, done by the Bundesbank since capital flight mostly goes to Germany, although all members of the euro system share the losses if there are defaults.
The ECB has always vehemently denied that it has taken an excessive amount of risk despite its increasingly relaxed lending policies. But between Target2 and direct bond purchases alone, the euro system claims on troubled periphery countries are now approximately 1.1 trillion euros (this is our estimate based on available official data). This amounts to over 200 percent of the (broadly defined) capital of the euro system. No responsible bank would claim these sums are minor risks to its capital or to taxpayers. These claims also amount to 43 percent of German Gross Domestic Product, which is now around 2.57 trillion euros.
And Mr. Johnson’s predictions only get darker from there.
Those who claim, absurdly, that this is the work of wicked “Anglo-Saxon” speculators, fiendishly driving the euro down to make a quick buck, smash the European project and all the dastardly rest of it, need to talk to a few bankers and see the fear that the thought of the prospectof a euro break-up engenders. Undoubtedly there will be speculative activity at the margins, but, within the context of this disaster, its impact can be compared with a gentle breeze blowing across the decks of the Titanic as it steams towards the iceberg.
Back to Mr. Johnson:
A disorderly break-up of the euro area will be far more damaging to global financial markets than the crisis of 2008. In fall 2008 the decision was whether or how governments should provide a back-stop to big banks and the creditors to those banks. Now some European governments face insolvency themselves. The European economy accounts for almost 1/3 of world GDP. Total euro sovereign debt outstanding comprises about $11 trillion, of which at least $4 trillion must be regarded as a near term risk for restructuring.
Europe’s rich capital markets and banking system, including the market for 185 trillion dollars in outstanding euro-denominated derivative contracts, will be in turmoil and there will be large scale capital flight out of Europe into the United States and Asia. Who can be confident that our global megabanks are truly ready to withstand the likely losses? It is almost certain that large numbers of pensioners and households will find their savings are wiped out directly or inflation erodes what they saved all their lives.
Too pessimistic? Quite possibly, but these numbers are example of what is at stake, and why risk aversion is on the rise.
It is time for European and IMF officials, with support from the U.S. and others, to work on how to dismantle the euro area. While no dissolution will be truly orderly, there are means to reduce the chaos. Many technical, legal, and financial market issues could be worked out in advance. We need plans to deal with: the introduction of new currencies, multiple sovereign defaults, recapitalization of banks and insurance groups, and divvying up the assets and liabilities of the euro system. Some nations will soon need foreign reserves to backstop their new currencies. Most importantly, Europe needs to salvage its great achievements, including free trade and labor mobility across the continent, while extricating itself from this colossal error of a single currency.
Too radical? Maybe, but the plans need to be made (and, I suspect, are being made). But there can be no serious argument with the idea that the single currency (as constituted) was indeed a “colossal error”. It would be nice to see those in the political and bureaucratic class responsible for that error, and those of them who dug the even deeper hole into which the euro zone has now fallen, accept responsibility.
But no, they would rather scapegoat the Anglo-Saxons.