It's also clear, says Hamburg economist Dirk Meyer, that the timetable for a euro exit in the affected countries would begin on a Monday, or "Day X." Over the weekend, the governments would have issued the surprising announcement that banks would remain closed on Monday. The bank holiday would be needed to include all savings and checking accounts in the operation.
On Tuesday, the banks and savings banks would begin stamping their customers' bank notes with forgery-proof ink. Capital transactions would be monitored. Black market prices would quickly develop in what the scenario defines as an "unofficial, virtual currency market." Another bank holiday would be needed to convert accounts and balances to the new currency. But at least another year would pass before new bank notes could be printed and distributed. The stamped euro banknotes would remain legal tender in the meantime.
But these are merely the technical consequences of a monetary reform. The economic consequences, which many German companies are now assessing, would be more serious. What happens if, in addition to Greece, other countries have to leave the euro zone? What will be the consequences if Spain, Portugal or Italy reintroduce their own currencies? Experts in the finance departments of some companies are already envisioning the possible scenarios.
For instance, they are examining whether the "euro" is explicitly defined as the agreement currency in contracts with customers from problem countries, so that they don't suddenly find themselves being paid in drachmas or escudos for their products. They are also looking into whether the costs incurred by a possible currency crash would be tax-deductible. And they are examining the potential need for write-offs if claims against business partners from southern countries are suddenly denominated in new currencies on their balance sheets. "The demand for consulting services has risen considerably in recent months," says Gunnar Schuster, an attorney with the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.
Germany Would Be Hard Hit
Germany, the great exporting nation, would be especially hard hit by monetary reforms in the southern countries. Exports to Italy and Spain alone are valued at about 100 billion a year. Although sales of cars, machinery, electronics and optical devices would not be eliminated altogether in the event of a euro collapse, there would be sharp declines, because customers in Southern Europe could no longer afford German products.
As soon as lira or pesetas were in circulation once again, the currencies would be devalued against the euro. Some expect their value to decline by 20 to 25 percent, while others believe that as much as 40 percent is likely. German goods would automatically become more expensive and would hardly be competitive anymore.
When BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer warns that a collapse of the euro "would be a catastrophe," and says that he "doesn't even want to imagine" the possible consequences, he isn't just thinking about declining exports. Reithofer fears that regionalism could return to Europe, and that countries could reintroduce customs barriers to protect domestic industry. And the current uniform environment protection rules would be replaced by a large number of national regulations. All of this would plunge the German export economy into a crisis.
The consequences would be extensive for companies that don't just sell products to Southern Europe, but also maintain branches there or hold partnerships in local companies. The German industrial conglomerate ThyssenKrupp, for example, earns about 1.6 billion in revenues in Spain, where it also employs 5,500 people, mostly in elevator production. Even more important to the company is Italy, where it makes 2.3 billion a year, mostly with the production of stainless steel.
ThyssenKrupp's business in Italy and Spain makes up 9 percent of total sales, which illustrates the importance of the two countries in terms of profits. If a reintroduced lira and peseta were devalued against the euro, the amount of money that the subsidiaries transferred to the parent company in the western German city of Essen would shrink.
A look at the statistics of Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, illustrates the amounts of money at stake for the economy. They show that in 2010, German companies achieved sales of about 218 billion in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and Cyprus, with Italian subsidiaries alone accounting for 96 billion. The value of foreign direct investment in these countries is about 90 billion.
German companies would also benefit from a euro crash, because labor costs would decline in their Portuguese or Spanish factories, but on balance the consequences would be negative. After the last appreciation of the currency in Germany, when the deutsche mark was flying high in the mid-1990s, the export economy suffered the consequences for years.
Massive Shock for Banking Sector
The effects of a euro crash on the financial sector would be hardly less devastating. If Southern European countries left the euro zone, customers would raid their accounts in those countries, says Christopher Kaserer, an expert on capital markets at the Technical University of Munich. This could lead to "a bank run that Spanish and Italian banks would not survive." And because financial companies in these countries are closely intertwined with the rest of the euro zone, customers would also be lining up in front of German banks. "Without capital controls, this sort of a situation could spin out of control," says Michael Kemmer, head of the Association of German Banks. Economists anticipate that German banks would also have to be closed.
But even if there were no major bank run, the withdrawal of several countries from the euro zone would shake the European banking system to its very foundations, analysts with the major Swiss bank Credit Suisse have calculated in a study.
According to the study, if Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy joined Greece in leaving the euro, 29 large European banks would see a total capital shortfall of about 410 billion. "If the peripheral countries withdraw from the euro zone, a few of the large, publicly traded banks would come to a standstill," reads the analysts' sobering conclusion. In their predictions, the experts did not even take into account the likelihood that France would come under pressure if Italy withdrew from the euro.
Banks in the crisis-ridden countries would be especially hard-hit, but so would investment banks like Deutsche Bank. According to Credit Suisse, the market leader in Europe's largest economy, which prides itself in having survived the financial crisis without government assistance, would face such heavy loses that it would suffer a capital shortfall of 35 billion.
Whereas Greece is now almost irrelevant for Deutsche Bank, Italy and Spain account for a tenth of its European private and corporate banking business. The bank estimates the credit risks in these countries at about 18 billion (Italy) and 12 billion (Spain).
Large insurance companies are also active in Spain and Italy. Allianz, for example, holds Italian government bonds with a book value of 31 billion, which could create losses for the German insurance giant if Italy withdrew from the euro and had trouble paying its debts. Allianz also holds direct investments in banks in debt-ridden Southern European countries.
Companies, sensing the potential risks, are already doing as much as they can today to prepare for a European monetary storm. For instance, they are financing deals in the peripheral countries locally, so as to avoid currency risk. Investment bankers report that companies are receiving loans almost exclusively from banks in their own countries. Where cross-border transactions are unavoidable, banks are engaging in hedge transactions. IT systems are being prepared for a Europe with multiple currencies. And whenever they can, banks are establishing liquidity reserves or depositing money with the ECB.