Yanis Varoufakis

Abandoning a sinking ship? A plan for leaving the euro

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As regulars of this blog know, I am of the view that the eurozone’s collapse will be a harbinger of a postmodern 1930s. While virulently opposed to the eurozone’s creation, in its time of crisis I have been campaigning for saving the euro. Of course, as Alain Parguez wrote aptly here, it is impossible to save someone, or something, that does not want to be saved. In this post, while not going back on my personal commitment to keep trying to save a monetary union bent on self-destruction, I shall relate to you an idea on how a peripheral member-state could try to minimise the (huge) socio-economic costs of an exit from the eurozone forced upon it by the latter’s steady disintegration.

The said plan was put together with Ireland in mind. Its authors are Warren Mosler (an investment manager and creator of the mortgage swap and the current Eurofutures swap contract) and Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer based in Dublin, Ireland. Their starting point is a (perfectly spot on) diagnosis: “austerity programs” are “an abject failure and yet European officials continue to consider them the only game in town. So, we can only conclude at this stage that, given that European officials know that austerity programs do not work, they are pursuing them for political rather than economic reasons.”

For reasons that I have also put forward repeatedly, unless overturned, this political project will, perhaps unintentionally, lead to the eurozone’s collapse. Should a country like Ireland wait until the bitter end or should it prepare for an exit before the final nail has been hammered into the euro’s coffin? Mosler and Pilkington argue for an exit. But how can Ireland, or for that matter Portugal or Greece or Italy, exit without the sky falling on our heads? Here is what they propose. For the complete text click here:

1. Upon announcing that the country is leaving the Eurozone, the government of that country would announce that it would be making payments – to government employees etc. – exclusively in the new currency. Thus the government would stop using the euro as a means of payment.

2. The government would also announce that it would only accept payments of tax in this new currency. This would ensure that the currency was valuable and, at least for a while, in very short supply.

And that is pretty much it. The government spends to provision itself and thereby injects the new currency into the economy while their new taxation policy ensures that it is sought after by economic agents and, thus, valuable. Government spending is thus the spigot through which the government injects the new currency into the economy and taxation is the drain that ensures citizens seek out the new currency.

The idea here is to take a ‘hands off’ approach. Should the government of a given country announce an exit from the Eurozone and then freeze bank accounts and force conversion there would be chaos. The citizens of the country would run on the banks and desperately try to hold as many euro cash notes as possible in anticipation that they would be more valuable than the new currency.

Under the above plan, however, citizens’ bank accounts would be left alone. It would be up to them to convert their euros into the new currency at a floating exchange rate set by the market. They would, of course, have to seek out the currency any time they have to pay taxes and so would sell goods and services denominated in the new currency. This ‘monetises’ the economy in the new currency while at the same time helping to establish the market value of said currency.

My reaction to this plan is simple: It is a blueprint for anyone who thinks that the euro system is past the point of no return. Once that point has been and gone, it is perhaps essential to move into this direction swiftly. However, I do not believe that the eurozone is, presently, past the point of no return. It is still possible to salvage the common currency by means of something akin to our Modest Proposal. It may take more intervention by the ECB than the Modest Proposal envisions (courtesy of the awful delay in implementing a rational plan, continuing instead on the present unsustainable path) but it is still, I think, feasible.

The reason why I am adamant that this is not, yet, the time to abandon ship, is the huge human cost of the eurozone’s breakdown. Consider for example what will happen if we, indeed, adopt the exit plan proposed above.

  • All contracts by the government to the private sector (abroad and domestically) will be renegotiated in the new currency after the initial depreciation of the latter. In other words, domestic suppliers will face a large haircut instantly. Many of them will declare bankruptcy, with another large lump sum loss of jobs.
  • The banks will run dry and will not be kept open by the ECB. Which means that the only way Ireland or Greece or whoever adopts this plan can keep its banks open is if they are recapitalised in the new domestic currency by the Central Bank. But this means that bank account deposits will, de facto, be converted from euros to the new currency; thus annulling the beneficial measure of no compulsory conversions of bank holdings into the new currency (see above).
  • The authors claim that the above ill effects will be lessened by the government’s new found monetary independence which will enable it to discontinue austerity programs immediately and adopt counter-cyclical fiscal policy, as Argentina did after its default and discontinuation of the pesos-dollar peg. This may be so but all comparisons with Argentina must be taken with a large pinch of salt. For Argentina’s recovery, and associated fiscal policies, was far less due to its renewed independence and much more related to a serendipitous rise in demand for soya beans by China.
  • While it is true that the weaker currency will boost exports, it will also have a devastating effect: The creation of a two tier nation. One nation that has access to hoarded euros and another that does not. The former will acquire immense socio-economic power over the latter, thus forging a new form of inequality that is bound to operate as a break on development for a long while – just like the inequality that sprang up in the post 1970s period did enormous damage to our countries’ real development (as opposed to GDP growth numbers) in the second postwar phase.
  • Last, but certainly not least, even if one country exits the eurozone in this manner, the eurozone will unwind within 24 hours. The European System of Central Banks will break instantly down, Italian spreads will hit Greek levels, France will turn instantly into a AA or AB rated country and, before we can wistle the 9th Symphony, germany will have declared the re-constitution of the DM. A massive recession will then hit the countries that will make up the new DM zone (Austria, the Netherlands. possibly Finland, Poland and Slovakia) while the rest of the former eurozone will labour under significant stagflation. The new intra-European currency wars will suppress, in unison with the ongoing recession/stagflation, international and European trade and, therefore, the US will dive into a new Great Recession. The postmodern 1930s that I keep speaking of will be a tragic reality.

In summary, this plan may end up being the only way out of a vessel heading for the rocks. We must keep it in mind given that our European leaders’ bloodymindedness has put, and keeps, a whole Continent on the rock-bound path. But it is not time yet to adopt it. For it will come at an incredible human cost; a cost that can still be averted (assuming that I am right in saying that the point of no return has not been reached – yet). We still have a chance to storm the bridge and change course. Failing that, a plan like that by Mosler and Pilkington may be the equivalent of our lifeboats. We should, however, always keep in mind that our lifeboats will be launched in icy seas and, while stranded on them, many will perish.

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Copyright © 2011 · Yanis Varoufakis



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