When euro zone policymakers are asked if there is a Plan B to cope with a Greek exit from the single currency, their typical answer goes something like this: “There’s no such plan. If there were, it would leak, investors would panic and the exit scenario would gather unstoppable momentum.”
Maybe there really is no plan. Or maybe policymakers are just doing a good job of keeping their mouths shut. Hopefully, it is the latter because, since Greece’s election, the chances of Athens quitting the euro have shot up. And unless the rest of the euro zone is well prepared, the knock-on effect will be devastating.
The Greeks have lost their stomach for austerity and the rest of the euro zone has lost its patience with Athens’ broken promises. But unless one side blinks, Greece will be out of the single currency and any deposits left in Greek banks will be converted from euros into cut-price drachmas.
People outside Greece may think this is simply a Greek problem. Would it really be much worse than Athens’ debt restructuring earlier this year which passed off with barely a murmur? But the process of bringing back the drachma is likely to involve temporarily shutting banks and imposing capital controls. That would set a frightening precedent.
Politicians and central bankers would, of course, argue that Greece was a not a precedent but a one-off. But why trust them? When Greece was first bailed out in 2010, policymakers said it was a special case. Then Ireland and Portugal required official bailouts while both Spain and Italy have had to be helped by the European Central Bank. If savers in Greece get hammered, depositors and investors in these other weak euro member would want to move their money to somewhere safer. Fears would rise of a complete break-up of the euro zone.