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Friday 9 December 2016

Dan White: A little bravery could see Ireland benefit from Greek tragedy

A Greek exit from the eurozone could be much messier and traumatic than the so-called "experts" are predicting. This is something that could potentially be very good news for us here in Ireland.

Financial crisis usually come in two phases. The first phase seems to drag on forever and nothing much seems to happen. Then, in the second phase, events suddenly start to move at dizzying speed and everyone struggles to keep up with what is happening.

It is clear that the Greek debt crisis - which has been with us for almost six years - has now entered this second, more dangerous phase. Ever since the Greek government "deferred" making a $300m repayment to the IMF on June 5 it has become increasingly obvious that we are now in the endgame.

Deadline

The likely deadline for "Grexit" is in or around June 30. Not alone is Greece scheduled to repay the IMF $1.6bn (including $300m "deferred" June 5 repayment) on that date, its bailout programme with the EU/ECB/IMF Troika also runs out at the end of this month. If no new deal is negotiated by then the Greek government will quickly run out of cash.

One of two things is then likely to happen: The Greek government could decide to leave the euro immediately and order the country's central bank to start printing local currency with which to pay its bills. More likely is that Greece would remain formally within the eurozone but would start issuing IOUs to pay its bills as they fell due.

This however would only put off the evil day for a couple of weeks at best, as these IOUs would quickly morph into a de facto parallel currency trading at a major discount to the euro.

One way or another, Greece's exit from the euro is now virtually inevitable. The only questions are how messy a process Grexit is and what, if any implications it will have for Ireland?

While Germany, the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF have all been playing down the possible implications of Grexit, I wouldn't be so optimistic. Even if the much-vaunted "firewalls" work in the short term and contain any initial damage, a Greek exit from the eurozone takes us into deep and dangerous waters.

Ever since the Maastricht Treaty was signed in December 1991 we have been assured that the euro is forever. Once a country had signed up to the single currency there was, so we were told, no going back. If, after almost a quarter of a century, the example of Greece shows that a country can leave the eurozone, then the entire nature of the single currency is fundamentally altered.

If - or more likely when - this happens then the Eurozone ceases to be a genuine currency union and reverts to being no more than a glorified fixed exchange rate regime like the pre-1999 ERM. This means that the reaction of the markets to Grexit won't be one of good riddance but of who is next?

We might not have to wait long for an answer. Anti-austerity party Podemos is widely-expected to do very well in the Spanish general election due later this year. Already the yields or interest rate on Spanish and Portuguese government bonds have begun to rise as investors price in the likelihood of greater political risk in these two countries.

So what does all of this mean for us here in Ireland? Surely, with the economy recovering and the Troika having returned home, events in Greece mean nothing to us in this country?

Oh yes they do. Irish taxpayers spent €64bn bailing out the banks. While most of the €32bn that went into the so-called pillar banks will probably be eventually retrieved, the €32bn that went into Anglo and Irish Nationwide is money down the drain.

Refund

Grexit could change all of that. In June 2012 EU leaders promised to refund Ireland some of the cost of bailing out the banks. This promise was broken. Then in February 2013 when Anglo and the Nationwide were liquidated the Irish government issued €25bn of bonds to the Central Bank to replace the Anglo promissory notes.

Now the ECB wants the Irish Central Bank to sell these bonds to investors. It should do no such thing. If Grexit turns out to be messy then what appetite will the ECB have for a battle with Ireland over these bonds? Very little, I suspect. The Irish government should tell the ECB to bugger off and to Hell with the consequences.

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