Can the euro omelette be unscrambled without provoking the mother of all financial collapses? With the crisis heating up again as Spanish 10-year bond yields hit 6 percent last week, the question has renewed urgency. The conventional wisdom is that such unscrambling is impossible. The economic, political and legal complications of bringing back national currencies are so immense that the euro zone’s 17 nations are effectively locked in a prison with no exit.
A 250,000 pound prize offered by Simon Wolfson, a UK businessman, has aimed to turn this conventional wisdom on its head. In offering what is the second-largest economics prize after the Nobel, Wolfson hoped to stimulate creative juices. In one case, he has – although even it is no silver bullet.
Of the myriad problems with returning to the drachma, peseta and lira, the most intractable is how to prevent it triggering bank runs and ultimately financial chaos. Depositors would flee if they thought their euros were set to be converted into a national currency certain to suffer dramatic and immediate devaluation. This has already been happening to some extent in Greece. If the Greeks knew for sure that their old currency was coming back, the current fast walk would turn into a stampede. Even worse, the damage wouldn’t be confined to Greece.
Depositors in other peripheral countries would pull savings from their banks. Bond markets in these other countries would also seize up. Why would anybody want to lend money to Rome or Madrid in euros if they thought they were going to be paid back in devalued liras or pesetas?
The solution proposed by most Wolfson Prize finalists is secrecy. Plans for a country’s exit from the euro should be kept under wraps and then sprung on the unsuspecting world on a Friday evening. But this is impractical. How could 17 governments keep secret something that will involve lots of wrangling? Would a democratic country really be able to foist such a momentous decision on its people without a parliamentary debate? Even if secrecy was possible, it wouldn’t stop contagion to other countries.