By Robert J. Samuelson
Regarding Greece, I am puzzled by this: Why hasn’t there been a massive run on its banks?
Suppose you were Greek and had, say, 2,000 euros deposited in a local bank. Why would you leave it there? Speculation grows by the day that Greece will be forced out of the euro and create its own national currency, probably the drachma. Bank deposits would presumably be automatically converted from euros into the new currency.
Worse, it’s widely assumed that once the change occurs, the new currency will rapidly lose value (aka “depreciate”) against the euro, dropping as much as 50 percent. Given the risks, it seems that any sensible person would withdraw the precious euros from the bank and keep them as cash or redeposit them in a bank outside Greece.
But so far, a panic hasn’t happened, though there has been a slow, steady drain of deposits.
Were there a bank run, the simmering Greek crisis would quickly come to a boil. At best, the Greek government would have to declare a “bank holiday,” freezing deposits or permitting only limited withdrawals. At worse, Greece’s banking system would collapse, because the European Central Bank (ECB) — Europe’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve — couldn’t or wouldn’t backstop the banks.
Why hasn’t there been a bank run? The simplest explanation may be this: Most Greeks don’t yet believe the country will leave the euro.
I had a conversation last week with Athanasios Ellis, the longtime Washington correspondent for Kathimerini, one of Greece’s leading papers, who has now returned to Athens as senior editor and columnist. Ellis, in Washington for a few days, offered three reasons for Greeks’ faith in the euro.
First, the impending June 17 election may not result in a triumph of Syriza — the heretofore small left-wing party that has been leading in the polls and whose leader, Alexis Tsipras, has pledged to repudiate the existing rescue package backed by other eurozone countries, the International Monetary Fund and the ECB. The bailout, he says, imposes too much austerity on Greece, whose unemployment rate now exceeds 20 percent.
A Syriza victory would raise the odds of a Greek exit from the euro, because Germany and other members of the eurozone wouldn’t completely renegotiate the existing rescue package.
But, said Ellis, support for Syriza and some smaller parties may prove fleeting — a protest vote that was apparent in the recent election that failed to produce a governing majority. As the new election approaches, support for New Democracy, the main right-of-center party, and Pasok, its left-wing counterpart, may pick up. These parties, which have traditionally dominated Greek politics, would likely form a coalition that, while not rejecting existing rescue packages, would ask for modifications to cushion the effects on the economy.
Sure enough, polls released since my talk with Ellis show New Democracy in the lead. In the Greek electoral system, finishing first is crucial, because the top vote-getting party automatically receives a bonus of 50 seats in the 300-member parliament.
Second, other nations in the eurozone will make some concessions to Greece — for example, allowing it to achieve the agreed budget targets in four instead of two years, argued Ellis. The reason: The costs of doing so would be a lot less than gambling on the consequences of a Greek exit from the euro. The great worry of an exit is that it would trigger a chain reaction of bank runs in other vulnerable countries: Spain, Italy, Ireland, Portugal. If so, the possible costs — in lost economic growth and rescue packages — would dwarf any additional aid to Greece.
Finally, Ellis doesn’t think that Greece will need another disbursement from the existing rescue package until late in July. This would provide some breathing room for a new centrist government and the eurozone’s other members to modify the present austerity and make it more pro-growth.
Altogether, this is a plausible case that, once again, Greece and Europe will muddle through. But the case isn’t airtight. If it were me, I’d still take my money and run. If too many Greeks start to think this way, events could swiftly spin out of control.