Greek Eurozone Exit Could Reverberate Globally

Posted May 17th, 2012 at 4:00 pm (UTC-5)
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The Greek economy accounts for just 2 percent of the economy in the 17-nation euro currency union, but if Athens exits the eurozone, the reverberations could be felt throughout the world.

No country has quit the eurozone in its 13-year existence, but European leaders and financial analysts are now openly speculating that Greece could be the first to engage in what some are calling a “Grexit.” After a splintered election earlier this month, Greece's fractious political parties were unable to form a new coalition government, setting the stage for volatile new parliamentary contests in mid-June.

But the pivotal issue in the political quagmire — whether Greece plans to adhere to a commitment for a strict austerity spending plan in exchange for billions of dollars in new international bailout funds — has opened the possibility that Athens could default on its vast financial obligations. With that fear in mind, the financial rating firm Fitch on Thursday again downgraded Greece's credit standing.

If Greece quits the eurozone — or is forced out — the financial losses for European governments and banks holding Greek debt could be staggering — perhaps nearly $1.3 trillion, according to an estimate by international bankers.

Other analysts say a Greek default could also devastate the economic prospects for the much larger debtor governments in Italy and Spain, as well as lead to turmoil on world financial markets. They say the calamity could equal the effect of the 2008 collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment empire in New York that led to the severe global economic downturn.

The chief of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, declined to speculate this week on which might cost more — a Greek eurozone exit, or the billions already spent to prop up the finances of the debt-ridden government. But she told a Dutch television interviewer that a Greek departure from the currency union would certainly be costly.

“I didn't say it was more expensive because I am not comparing, I am saying it would be extremely expensive, and not just in Greece, but it would be extremely expensive and hard.''

Lagarde, echoing the sentiment of numerous European leaders, said the best solution would be for Greece to adhere to its agreement on the austerity plan to cut government spending and pay back its debts over the coming years.

“I think what we should look at is the optimal scenario where the country has the political resolve to actually observe the commitment, comply with the undertaking, stay within the zone, which seems to be the desire of the population. But it goes with the effort to abide by the program which has been put in place and where the euro partners have actually agreed to support the country.''

But the Greek populace has voiced widespread anger over the austerity measures that call for elimination of thousands of government jobs, pension cuts and diminished spending for social programs. Street protests — sometimes violent — have been frequent. Already, Greek leaders say bank account holders have withdrawn hundreds of millions of euros from Greek banks and sent their money out of the country.

Political surveys in Greece show growing support for Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, who has called for rejection of the bailout terms. He says his party will not cave in to demands from elsewhere in Europe to support the austerity cuts.

“Syriza will not rot, it will never compromise, it will not betray anyone, it will never participate in a salvation government to rescue the bailout agreement.''

If Greece leaves the eurozone, it would readopt its old currency, the drachma. But analysts say the monetary unit likely would be significantly devalued from the euro, making the country's imported goods much more expensive, while at the same time making vacations for foreigners visiting Greece much cheaper.

Perhaps the biggest worry for Greece, however, is that if it defaulted, outside lenders would be reluctant to lend it any more money, or, at the least, impose prohibitive interest rates on new loans. The country then could quickly become isolated as it attempts to regain its standing in the world community.