Greece is going to restructure its debts — and it’s going to do so before mid-2013. That’s the clear message sent by the latest Reuters poll of 55 economists from across Europe: 46 of them saw a restructuring in the next two years, with four saying it would happen in the next three months.Count me with the majority of the economists surveyed here; I've been suggesting for quite a while that default is going to prove to be the least bad option for Greece. (For a cogent counter-argument, however, see this post by Rebecca Wilder.)
This is a major development. The markets haven’t believed Greece for a while — but now they don’t believe the European Union, either.
The reason that default seems increasingly likely is summed up in this picture from Deutsche Bank. It illustrates that the Greek government will have to run a primary budget surplus of more than 10% of GDP in order to simply stabilize its level of debt. How likely do you think that is? To me it seems frankly impossible. The only alternative is for German and French taxpayers to send Greece additional and ongoing chunks of money to make up that shortfall, and we seem to have reached the end of their willingness to do that.
But if default (I suppose we can use the polite term, "restructuring") happens, there are some interesting technical issues that bear thinking through. The most interesting of them, to me, is what this means for Greece's continued use of the euro as its currency. Does default mean that Greece must necessarily drop the euro?
I think the answer is that Greece won't necessarily have to drop the euro... but that the pressures to create a local Greek currency will be tremendous, and that it will probably turn out to be the least bad option.
The problem is the banking system. As debt restructuring seems increasingly likely, and certainly if and when restructuring actually happens, depositors in Greek banks will rush to withdraw their savings in order to place them in non-Greek banks. To some degree, this process has already started, but this will become a full-fledged bank run once debt restructuring becomes imminent. (Oh, but wait: bank runs are supposed to be forestalled by deposit insurance, and deposits in Greece are guaranteed... by the Greek government. Oops.)
I don't think there's much uncertainty about this part of the story. But now the Greek government has a choice. Do they:
- Simply allow the bank run to happen, let banks in Greece collapse, and let Greek depositors lose all their savings; or
- Freeze bank assets and forbid people from withdrawing their savings, at least for the time being, thereby preserving the amount of their deposits.
Okay, so now we have an incipient bank run prevented by a freeze on bank deposits, a Greek government that has defaulted and can not borrow externally (though they may be receiving some hand-outs from the EU or IMF), and a financial sector that has completely seized up, with no borrowing or lending in Greece. What next?
The problem the Greek government now faces is how to create a financial sector again - how to get borrowing and lending to recommence, so that the economy can start to get moving. And this is where a new, local currency would be very, very welcome.
The Greek government will therefore face a second choice. Do they:
- Continue to rely only on the euro as a currency, but keep the mantríto in place to preserve depositors' bank balances while rendering them untouchable, with the result that the banking sector is effectively frozen and Greece becomes a cash-only economy;
- Start issuing New Drachmas (as well as accepting them as a legitimate form of payment for tax liabilities), provide banks with a tranche of start-up capital in New Drachmas in exchange for Greek government bonds so they can start lending and creating the new money, allow people to retain their euro savings, but keep the mantríto to prevent massive capital flight; or
- Start issuing New Drachmas but also forcibly convert depositors' savings in Greek banks from euros into New Drachmas, thereby effectively shrinking the Greek public's savings balances significantly, and then allow the mantríto to gradually wind down as the danger of bank runs disappears.
This is all very speculative, of course, and there are various decision points in the story I've outlined here where things could go the other way. But this story makes sense to me, and seems likelier than the alternatives. So my short answer to the central question posed here is: yes, Greece can keep the euro if it defaults, but it won't.