Now that the possibility of a Greek exit from the euro is back to being topic #1 of discussion, just as it was back in the summer of 2012 and the fall of 2011, and investors are propagandized by groundless speculation posited by journalists who have never used excel in their lives and are merely paid mouthpieces of bigger bank interests, it is time to rewind to a step by step analysis of precisely what will happen in the moments before Greece announces the EMU exit, how the transition from pre- to post- occurs, and the aftermath of what said transition would entail, courtesy of one of the smarter minds out there at the time (before his transition to a more status quo supportive tone), Citi's Willem Buiter, who pontificated precisely on this topic previously. Three words: "not unequivocally good."
What happens when Greece exits from the euro area?
Were Greece to be forced out of the euro area (say by the ECB refusing to continue lending to Greek banks through the regular channels at the Eurosystem and stopping Greece’s access to enhanced credit support (ELA) at the Greek central bank), there would be no reason for Greece not to repudiate completely all sovereign debt held by the private sector and by the ECB. Domestic political pressures might even drive the government of the day to repudiate the loans it had received from the Greek Loan Facility and from the EFSF, despite it having been issued under English law. Only the IMF would be likely to continue to be exempt from a default on its exposure, because a newly ex-euro area Greece would need all the friends it could get – outside the EU. In the case of a confrontation-driven Greek exit from the euro area, we would therefore expect to see around a 90 percent NPV cut in its sovereign debt, with 100 percent NPV losses on all debt issued under Greek law, including the debt held, directly or directly, by the ECB/Eurosystem. We would also expect 100 percent NPV losses on the loans by the Greek Loan Facility and the EFSF to the Greek sovereign.
Consequences for Greece
Costs of EA exit for Greece are very high, most notably the damage done to balance sheets of Greek banks and nonfinancial corporates in anticipation of EA exit.
We have recently discussed at length what we think would happen should Greece leave the euro area (Buiter and Rahbari (2011)), so we shall be brief here. Note that we assume that Greece exits the euro area and does not engage in the technical fudge discussed in Buiter and Rahbari (2011), under which it technically stays in the euro area but introduces a second, parallel or complementary currency.
The instant before Greece exits it (somehow) introduces a new currency (the New Drachma or ND, say). Assume for simplicity that at the moment of its introduction the exchange rate between the ND and the euro is 1 for 1. This currency then immediately depreciates sharply vis-à-vis the euro (by 40 percent seems a reasonable point estimate). All pre-existing financial instruments and contracts under Greek law are redenominated into ND at the 1 for 1 exchange rate.
What this means is that, as soon as the possibility of a Greek exit becomes known, there will be a bank run in Greece and denial of further funding to any and all entities, private or public, through instruments and contracts under Greek law. Holders of existing euro-denominated contracts under Greek law want to avoid their conversion into ND and the subsequent sharp depreciation of the ND. The Greek banking system would be destroyed even before Greece had left the euro area.
There would remain many contracts and financial instruments involving Greek private and public entities denominated in euro (or other currencies, like the US dollar) that are not under Greek law. These would not get redenominated into ND. With part of their balance sheet redenominated into ND which would depreciate sharply and the rest remaining denominated in euro and other currencies, any portfolio mismatch would cause disruptive capital gains and losses for what’s left of the Greek banking system, Greek non-bank financial institutions and any private or public entity with a (now) mismatched balance sheet. Widespread defaults seem certain.
As discussed in Buiter and Rahbari (2011), we believe that the improvement in Greek competitiveness that would result from the introduction of the ND and its sharp depreciation vis-à-vis the euro would be short-lived in the absence of meaningful further structural reform of labour markets, product markets and the public sector. Higher domestic Greek ND-denominated wage inflation and other domestic cost inflation would swiftly restore the old uncompetitive real equilibrium or a worse one, given the diminution of pressures for structural reform resulting from euro area exit.
In our view, the bottom line for Greece from an exit is therefore a financial collapse and an even deeper recession than the country is already experiencing - probably a depression.
Monetising the deficit
A key difference between the ‘Greece stays in’ and the ‘Greece exits’ scenarios is that we believe/assume that if Greece remains a member of the euro area, there would be official funding for the Greek sovereign (from the Greek Loan Facility, the EFSF and the IMF), even after the inevitable deep coercive Greek sovereign debt restructuring, and even if NPV losses were imposed on the official creditors – the Greek Loan Facility, the EFSF and the ECB. The ECB probably would no longer engage in outright purchases of Greek sovereign debt through the SMP, but the EFSF would be able to take over that role following the enhancement and enlargement of the EFSF later in 2011.4 If Greece remains a member of the euro area, the ECB would likewise, in our view, continue to fund Greek banks (which would have to be recapitalised following the Greek sovereign debt restructuring), both through the regular liquidity facilities of the Eurosystem and through the ELA.
In the case of a (confrontational and bitter) departure of Greece from the euro area, it is likely that all official funding would vanish, at least for a while, even from the IMF (which would, under our most likely scenario, not have suffered any losses on its loans to the Greek sovereign). The ECB/Eurosystem would, of course, following a Greek exit, cease funding the Greek banks.
This means that the Greek sovereign would either have to close its budget gap through additional fiscal austerity, following its departure from the euro area, or find other means to finance it. The gap would be the primary (non-interest) general government deficit plus the interest due on the debt the Greek sovereign would continue to serve (the debt issued under foreign law other than the loans from the Greek Loan Facility and the EFSF, and the debt to the IMF), plus any refinancing of this remaining sovereign debt as it matured. We expect the Greek General Government deficit, including interest, to come out at around 10 percent of GDP for 2011, while the programme target is 7.6 percent. General government interest as a share of GDP is likely to be around 7.2 percent of GDP in 2011, which means that we expect the primary General Government deficit to be around 2.8 percent of GDP. We don’t know the interest bill in 2011 for the IMF loan and for the outstanding privately held debt issued under foreign law. If we assume that these account for 10 percent of the total interest bill on the general government debt – probably an overestimate as interest rates on the IMF loan are lower than on the rest of Troika funding – then we would have to add 0.72 percent to the primary deficit as a percentage of GDP to obtain an estimate of the budget deficit that would have to be funded by the Greek government, say 3.5 percent of GDP. We would have to add to that any maturing IMF loans and any maturing privately held sovereign debt not under Greek law. This is on the assumption that even those creditors under international law that continue to get serviced in full, would prefer not to renew their exposure to the Greek sovereign once they have been repaid. In addition, future disbursements by the IMF under the first Greek programme would be at risk following a Greek exit. This would create a further funding gap.
Assume the Greek authorities end up (very optimistically) having to find a further 5 percent of GDP worth of financing. This could be done by borrowing or by monetary financing. Borrowing in ND-denominated debt would likely be very costly. Nominal interest rates would be high because of high anticipated inflation – inflation that would indeed be likely to materialise. Real interest rates would also be high.
Although the Greek sovereign’s ability to service newly issued debt would be greatly enhanced following its repudiation of most of its outstanding debt, the default would raise doubts about its future willingness to service its debt. Default risk premia and liquidity premia (the market for ND-denominated Greek debt would be thin) would raise the cost of borrowing in ND-denominated debt. Even if the Greek authorities were to borrow under foreign law by issuing debt denominated in US dollars or euro, default risk premia and liquidity premia would likely be prohibitive for at least the first few quarters following the kind of confrontational or non-consensual debt default we would expect if Greece were pushed out of the euro area.
So the authorities might have to finance at least 5 percent worth of GDP through issuance of ND base money, under circumstances where the markets would inevitably expect a high rate of inflation. The demand for real ND base money would be very limited. The country would likely remain de-facto euroised to a significant extent, with euro notes constituting an attractive store of value and means of payment even for domestic transactions relative to New Drachma notes. We have few observations on post-currency union exit base money demand to tell us whether a 5 percent of GDP expected inflation tax could be extracted at all by the issuance of ND – that is, at any rate of inflation. If it is feasible at all, it would probably involve a very high rate of inflation. It is possible that we would end up with hyperinflation.
The obvious alternative to monetisation is a further tightening in the primary deficit through additional fiscal austerity (of something under 5 percent of GDP), allowing for some non-inflationary issuance of base money. Because Greek exit would be in part the result of austerity fatigue in Greece, this outcome does not seem likely.
A collapsed banking system, widespread default throughout the economy, a continuing non-competitive economy and high inflation with a material risk of hyperinflation would make for a deep and enduring recession/depression in Greece. Social and political dislocation would be certain. There would, in our view, be a material risk of a downward spiral of dysfunctional politics and economics.
Consequences for the remaining euro area and EU member states of a Greek exit
For the world outside Greece, and especially for the remaining euro area member states following a Greek exit, the key insight would be that a taboo was broken with a euro area exit by Greece. The irrevocably fixed conversion rates at which the old Drachma was joined to the euro in 2001 would, de facto, have been revoked. The permanent currency union would have been revealed to be a snowball on a hot stove.
Not only would Greek official credibility be shot, the same thing would happen for the rest of the EA member states in our view. First, monetary union is a two-sided binding commitment. Both sides renege if the accord is broken. Second, Greece would only exit from the euro area if it was driven out by the rest of the euro area member states, with the active cooperation of the ECB. Even though it would be Greece that cuts the umbilical cord, it would be clear for all the world to see that it was the remaining euro area member states and the ECB that forced them to wield the scalpel.
It does not help to say that Greece ought never to have been admitted to the euro area because the authorities during the years leading up to Greek membership in 2001, knowingly falsified the fiscal data to meet the Maastricht criteria for EMU admission, and continued doing so for long afterwards.6 After all, what Greece did was just an exaggerated version of the deliberate data manipulation, distortion and misrepresentation that allowed the vast majority of the euro area member states to join the EMU, including quite a few from what is now called the core euro area7. The preventive arm of the euro area, the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) which, if it had been enforced would have prevented the Greek situation from arising, was emasculated by Germany and France in 2004, when these two countries were about to be at the receiving end of its enforcement.
Euro area membership is a two-sided commitment. If Greece fails to keep that commitment and exits, the remaining members also and equally fail to keep their commitment. This is not just a morality tale. It has highly practical implications. When Greece can exit, any country can exit. If we look at the austerity fatigue and resistance to structural reform in the rest of the periphery and in quite a few core euro area countries, it is not plausible to argue that the Greek case is completely unique and that its exit creates no precedent. Despite the fact that both Greece’s fiscal situation and its structural, supply-side economic problems are by some margin the most severe in the euro area, Greece’s exit would create a powerful and highly visible precedent.
As soon as Greece has exited, we expect the markets will focus on the country or countries most likely to exit next from the euro area. Any non-captive/financially sophisticated owner of a deposit account in that country (or in those countries) will withdraw his deposits from banks in countries deemed at risk - even a small risk - of exit. Any non-captive depositor who fears a non-zero risk of the future introduction of a New Escudo, a New Punt, a New Peseta or a New Lira (to name but the most obvious candidates) would withdraw his deposits from the countries involved at the drop of a hat and deposit them in the handful of countries likely to remain in the euro area no matter what - Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland. The ‘broad periphery’ and ‘soft core’ countries deemed at any risk of exit could of course start issuing deposits under English or New York law in an attempt to stop a deposit run, but even that might not be sufficient. Who wants to have their deposit tied up in litigation for months or years?
Apart from bank runs in every country deemed, by markets and investors, to be even remotely at risk of exit from the euro area, there would be de facto funding strikes by external investors and lenders for borrowers from these countries. Again, putting under foreign law (most likely English or New York) all cross-border (or perhaps even all domestic) financial contracts and instruments could at most mitigate this but would not cure it.
The funding strike and deposit run out of the periphery euro area member states (defined very broadly), would create financial havoc and mostly like cause a financial crisis followed by a deep recession in the euro area broad periphery. The counterparty inflow of deposits and diversion of funding to the ‘hard core’ euro area and the removal (or at least substantial reduction) of the risk of ECB monetisation of EA sovereign and bank debt would drive up the euro exchange rate. So the remaining euro area members would suffer (at least temporarily) from an uncompetitive exchange rate as well from the spillovers of the financial and economic crises in the broad periphery.
As noted by the new IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde (Lagarde (2011) and confirmed by Josef Ackerman (Ackermann (2011, p.14)), the European banking sector is seriously undercapitalised. It would not be well-positioned, in our view, to cope with the spillovers and contagion caused by a Greek exit and the fear of further exits. Ms Lagarde was arm-twisted by the EU political leadership, the ECB and the European regulators into a partial retraction of her EU banking sector capital inadequacy alarm call.10 However, this only served to draw attention to the obvious truth that despite the three bank stress tests in the EU since October 2009 and despite the capital raising that has gone on since then both to address any weaknesses revealed by these tests and to anticipate the Basel III capital requirements, the EU banking sector as a whole remains significantly undercapitalised even if sovereign debt is carried at face value. In addition, the warning by Ackermann that “… many European banks would not be able to handle writing down the sovereign bonds they hold on their banking books to market levels…” (Ackermann (2011), see also IMF (2011, pp. 12 -20)) serves as a reminder of the fact that Europe is faced with a combined sovereign debt crisis in the euro area periphery and a potential banking sector insolvency crisis throughout the EU.
A banking crisis in the euro area and in the EU would most likely result from an exit by Greece from the euro area. The fundamental financial and real economy linkages from the rest of the world to the euro area and the rest of the EU are strong enough to make this a global concern.
Ok, now we get it... all the worst bits of the bible...
But, of course, we will be told how it's all so different now just 3 years on. How it will be "contained" and managable... so rest assured and listen to Jean-Claude Juncker.