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A 'how-to' guide for Greeks escaping the euro

20th May 2012, Comments0 comments


Once a taboo, Greece's exit from the eurozone is now regarded as a realistic option that will require deft handling to avoid bank runs and economic calamity.

Rule Number 1, analysts say: Don't Panic.

Getting back together with an ancient flame like the drachma has its risks, economists advise: the moment the currency is reintroduced to Greeks its value would plunge.

The value of Greeks' savings, once converted to drachma, could plummet by 50 percent, according to some studies.

It's a prospect already striking fear into people.

Since 2009, some 16 billion euros ($20 billion) have been deposited abroad and that trend is accelerating. On Monday alone, Greeks withdrew 700 million euros from their banks.

"The panic has already begun," said Pedro Videla, professor at the IESE Business School in Madrid who believes a return to the drachma is "very probable".

"As the country is already disintegrating socially and politically, I would bet on it leaving the euro very soon," he said.

His solution? "Over a weekend, we block all the accounts, we close all the banks, and no-one can withdraw money."

Giuliano Noci, professor at Italy's Milan Polytechnic, agreed that Greece would have to stop a flight of capital with draconian measures such as blocking bank accounts.

"It is in a kind of economic war," he said.

A second strategy, announcing a return to the drachma in advance, would sow panic, analysts warned.

German's Ifo Institute research centre advises taking a third option: leave bank accounts denominated in euros and allow people to spend euros, so as to avoid money rushing out of the country.

But at the same time, government workers would be paid in drachma, which would also be the currency for all dealings with the state.

That would give the drachma a critical mass of 60 percent of all transactions and make it an indispensable part of daily life.

Erik Nielsen, analyst at Unicredit, calls for keeping the euro as a currency until formal arrangements for Greece's exit from the eurozone and European Union are launched.

"The best scenario would be one of a rapidly shrinking state, people move towards a cash society, and life actually moves on until some sort of new stability emerges," he said.

But that leaves the question of where to find so many drachma, now that the old notes and coins have been destroyed.

One idea, said IESE Business School's Videla, would be to stamp all the euro notes with the words "This is a drachma, not a euro" or to snip a corner from the notes to differentiate them.

The problem, said Federico Steinberg of the Elcano Royal Institute, a Spanish economic research body, is that very few companies in the world produce official coins and notes.

Even if the Greek mint decided to drop printing 10-euro and 20-euro notes in favour of printing drachma, it would still take several months to print enough for the country, he said.

"The transition would be pretty chaotic and you could see informal, alternative currencies appear, or a partial return to barter," Steinberg said.

"It would be like going back to prehistoric times financially but that is what happened to Argentina in 2001 and after a few months the situation stabilised," he said.

With a new, weaker currency in place, it would be time to take advantage: Greece would be a bargain for tourists and exports would be extremely competitive, boosting gross domestic product (GDP).

But "foreign debt as a percentage of GDP would explode because it would be denominated in foreign currency and inflation would explode, too", said Paula Goncalves Carvalho, analyst at Portuguese bank BPI.

Greece is not self-sufficient in many essentials, she said, meaning import costs would surge.

One way to ensure Greece's competitiveness is not cancelled out by inflation would be to stop paying foreign debts, said the IESE's Videla, even if that would banish it from the international financial markets for years.

In the end, said Milan Polytechnic's Noci, a Greek exit need not be a catastrophe.

"The examples of payment default and enormous currency devaluations in Argentina, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia clearly show that this type of process, if well managed, is not a disaster," he said.

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© 2012 AFP

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