Central Banks

Don't fear for your euros, worry about your business

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2011, 12:00am


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A concerned reader writes in to ask how a break-up of the euro would affect businesses in Asia. 'What would happen to the euro deposits in my HSBC account? How would I pay my suppliers in Europe?'

These are valid questions, and seem especially urgent following the news this week that Icap, the world's largest foreign exchange broker has been running tests to ensure its electronic currency trading system is ready to handle Greece's exit from the euro zone and the sudden reintroduction of its former national currency, the drachma.

So how likely is a break-up?

At this stage, two years into the crisis, most analysts agree that it would take drastic action to resolve Europe's debt problems, preserve the euro zone and re-establish economic stability.

For a start, to provide liquidity, push down governments' borrowing costs and shore up the banking system, the European Central Bank (ECB) would have to initiate a massive series of sovereign debt purchases at least as extensive as the US Federal Reserve's programme of quantitative easing.

Next, the euro zone's governments would have to agree to establish a single, centralised debt-issuing authority whose bonds would be jointly guaranteed by all 17 members.

Finally, the euro zone countries would have to move rapidly to set up a single authority with the power to oversee member governments' taxation and spending plans. In other words, they would have to embrace full fiscal union.

None of that is going to happen. A majority of the ECB's board members are opposed to large-scale bond purchases, while the German government is adamant that neither the central bank nor German taxpayers' money should be used to bail out indebted euro zone members. As a result, common 'euro bonds' and fiscal union look out of the question.

That leaves two options: either the euro zone's members can remain within the single currency, enduring all the economic pain of sky-high borrowing costs, fiscal austerity and a crippled banking system; or the euro can break up, with one or more members leaving the single currency.

At the moment, member governments are pursuing the first option. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to prove viable for all.

For Greece, attempting to remain within the euro zone means slow economic death. The government's austerity programme has precipitated such a steep fall in output that tax revenues are dropping even faster than spending.

As a result, the government's deficit is growing, not shrinking. Meanwhile money continues to haemorrhage from the country's banking system, causing a sharp monetary contraction.

At some point, the Greek people will decide enough is enough and that the country will be better off leaving the euro. It is possible - although at this stage not probable - that other countries may follow.

The good news is that the euro would survive a Greek exit. Sure, there would be a period of nasty volatility, but in the long run the currency would probably emerge stronger and more stable for shedding its weakest member.

Businesses in Asia would be little affected. If they trade with Greek companies, any goods or services they buy would get considerably cheaper as the newly reinstated drachma suffered an immediate devaluation of between 30-50 per cent. On the other hand, if they are owed money by Greek counterparts, they may find themselves asked to accept payment not in euros but in deeply depreciated drachmas.

Even if other countries - Portugal possibly, or even Spain - follow Greece by leaving the single currency, euros deposited in banks outside those markets will retain their status and value, as the core of the euro zone, centred on Germany, will remain intact.

For Asian holders of the euro, the nightmare scenario would be if Germany itself decided to quit the single currency and bring back the Deutschemark.

A number of reputable economists have suggested this as a possible solution to the crisis. The upshot would be a rapid strengthening of the new German currency and an equally rapid depreciation of the euro against all other currencies.

Happily for holders of euro deposits, this is an extremely unlikely scenario, not least because Germany would suffer acutely from the severe loss of competitiveness that would follow Deutschemark appreciation.

As a result, the answer to our reader's question is that your euros will still be good, even if the euro zone does fragment.

Perhaps what you should really be worrying about are the consequences for your business, given the protracted economic pain Europe will endure if the single currency doesn't break up.