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Three Doomsday Scenarios: What Happens If the Eurozone Breaks Up?

The time has come to confront an ugly truth: The possibility that the Eurozone will break up, or rather fall apart, is growing increasingly likely.

In fact, I'd say given recent developments in Italy the probability of a breakup is as high as 40%.

Indeed, if a country as small as Greece or Portugal were to default or abandon the euro, the effect on the Eurozone would be manageable. The debts of those countries are too small to make more than minor dents in the international financial system, and they represent too small a share of the Eurozone economy for their departure to have much impact.

The psychological effect of their departure would be considerable – if only because Eurozone leaders have expended so much money and effort to bail them out. However, devastated credibility among the major Eurozone leaders is more of a political problem than an economic one.

But now that the markets' focus has moved to Italy and Spain, the Eurozone is really in trouble.

Asking for Trouble

Part of the problem is that in arranging the partial write-down of Greek debt, authorities made it "voluntary," thereby avoiding triggering the $3.8 billion of Greek credit default swaps (CDS) outstanding. Of course, this caused a run on Italian, Spanish, and French debt, as banks that thought they were hedged through CDS have begun selling frantically, since their CDS may not protect them.

Honestly, how stupid can you get! I don't like CDS, but fiddling the system to invalidate them is just asking for trouble. And so far, the only effect has been a considerable increase in the likelihood of a Eurozone breakup.

Italy, Spain, and France are too big to bail out without the European Central Bank (ECB) simply printing euros and buying up those countries' debt. However, if the ECB adopted the latter approach, hyperinflation would almost certainly ensue. Furthermore, the ECB itself would quickly default, since its capital is only $14.6 billion (10.8 billion euros) – a pathetically small amount if it's to start arranging bailouts.

Of course, Europe's taxpayers could then bail out the ECB by lending the money needed to recapitalize the bank, but a moment's thought shows that the natural result of such a policy is ruin.

So what would a breakup of the Eurozone look like? Basically, there are three possibilities.

A Clean Break

The first, and cleanest, would be a split between the "strong" countries in the Eurozone – such as Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands – and the "weak" countries, such as Italy, Spain and France. Greece and Portugal would have to split from even the weaker euro.

Of course, this would require intelligent, apolitical management by European authorities, so it's pretty unlikely.

Even if such a split was well executed, it would have a negative effect on the economies concerned. It would introduce costs and disrupt the global trade balance. Still, after a year or two of slow growth, Europe would recover. And other European economies outside the Eurozone, like Poland, would not be affected. In fact, they might even benefit, as the disadvantage in international trade wrought by their small currencies would be lessened.

The Perils of Printing Money

The second possibility is a disorderly breakup of the Eurozone, which would result from the ECB printing money.

The ECB would default, but Eurozone debt would not default, simply losing most of its value. Obviously, that means a period of extraordinarily high inflation would accompany such a collapse.

Indeed, large public debts can be worked off quite quickly with enough inflation, as my native Britain discovered in 1945-75. Wartime debts were worked down to a manageable level during that period, in spite of a notable lack of budget discipline.

Of course, the losers were small savers like my Great-Aunt Nan, who put her substantial life savings in government bonds at her retirement in 1947 and was more or less penniless by the time she died in 1973.

This approach, solving a government's debt problems at the expense of the old and powerless, is especially disgraceful, but politicians don't care about that. In this case, bonds of all types should be avoided, but stock investments in non-Eurozone members would do fine. However, Germany would be traumatized by the inflation and the costs imposed on the economy by the destruction of its savings.

Disorderly Default

Finally, the third possibility would result from the redoubtable German Chancellor Angela Merkel protecting German taxpayers from bailouts and German savers from inflation. In that case, country after country could default, dropping from the Eurozone in a disorderly manner.

The negative wealth effect from defaulting government bonds would make the defaulting countries poor. Additionally, Eurozone non-members would suffer increased competition from suddenly cheap labor in those countries.

Meanwhile, Germany and other strong countries, like the Netherlands or Finland, would do fine. They'd run balanced budgets and gradually lower their state debts. They would probably remain in the Eurozone (or whatever's left of it), which would gradually strengthen as the dead weight of weaker economies was trimmed.

Truly, a Eurozone split would be bad news – no matter which way it happened.

Germany would survive an orderly breakup and do well in a tight-money default, but fare poorly in a period of hyperinflation. Conversely non-Eurozone Eastern Europe would do well in an orderly breakup and survive hyperinflation, but it would be battered by a tight-money default.

At the end of the day there are no easy answers on this one. The best you can do is to find markets with little economic connection to Europe – and even that's not easy.

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  1. Paul Davies | November 22, 2011

    The Eurozone was born out of the arrogance of the Germans the stupidity of the French and the puff of politicians in smaller countries who's delusion that they could play with gorillas got them into the predicament they are now in. The great Nobel Laureate economist and student of Europe F Hayek would be turning in his grave or laughing his head off. Thank God Britain had the wisdom of Thatcher to avoid the seduction. Hayek rightly concluded that ongoing conflict/competition was the precondition for freedom and what do you think a currency is if not the measurement of the competitive position of economies. Get rid of the stupidity that is the Euro and put political sovereignty back into the hands of the politicians people elect and let each country reap its own reward and respond accordingly. This is a farce and the people responsible should be held accountable particularly at a time when China was emerging as the worlds great manufacturer ,these smaller economies adopted a high value currency and took away their competitive advantage -the stupidity beggars belief.

  2. Kris Kristoffersen | November 22, 2011

    These 3 scenarii seems to strengthen the current views of the main european leaders : There will be no splitting of the Eurozone.
    What is the likey scenario if european leaders continue to be absolutely hell bent not to split the Eurozone?
    Would writting off the Greek and Italian debts be a soluition?

  3. Werner | November 22, 2011

    Thank you for your timely alerts!
    Your guess of 40% chance for an Eurozone breakup is – I am afraid – pretty modest. I would rather put it towards 50%. But after all, that's what the US to start with, heavily supported by the Brits's are really after. It's a question of delaying the total demise of the USD which will inevitably follow, rather sooner than later. As to the CDS, they appear to be a Wall Street invention, purportedly to serve as a default insurance, but probably much more as a speculative instrument to gamble against barely solvent or radically insolvent debtors. If those CDS were to be made worthless by one trick or another, the greatest sufferers will mos likely be US banks. You obviously have good reasons not to like CDS and are certainly not holding any of them in your portfolio (neither do I). Difficult times ahead for everyone in the Western world.

  4. Zebu | November 22, 2011

    An international Jubilee is the essential outcome, eradication of debt through failure/termination of the inherently flawed present system, thence establish the system that will endure where created money equals created product/asset, debt free.
    Historic Example: Australia's Commonwealth Bank in its original charter of 1911 so funded debt-free the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia's Transcontinental Railway and Australia's First World War effort….yes, debt-free! Its Original Charter and the lasting monument of the Original Charter; the Sydney Harbour Bridge; remains testimony to a system that is proven to work…… undeniable financial fact! Zebu

  5. DrBillLemoine | November 22, 2011

    The thesis is preposterous–Eurozone will never break up. There is no provision for members to leave. The Zone has ECB provisions to print money to prevent depression and default, just like the Fed. Merkel and Sarkozy don't want history to remember them as failures. Banks need chastening and reining in, but even their unlikely failure won't dissolve the Eurozone. Crazy thesis.

  6. Ron Paul 2012! | November 22, 2011

    I hope we get disorderly default, but I don't need to hope very much. It's going to happen. Best thing any of these countries (to include the US) can do is default. Look at Iceland!!!

    • Boy Li | November 11, 2012

      True, better to just default now and face reality rather than make it much, much longer.

  7. Ravi | November 30, 2011

    In any break-up of the Euro zone, Germany will definitely be severely impacted. The reason is that the German economy depends on export to the remaining European countries. With the break-up, German products would get expensive compared to locally manufactured goods, and Germany will be left with a lot of manufacturing capacity with no external markets. What would that do to the German economy and currency?

    • Chirantan | April 22, 2012

      Then Germany will be lobbying and bribing Indian polititians to create a market in India…

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