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The Re-emergence of Europe: Why Exiting the Euro Is a Bad Idea

01/19/2013 09:35 am 09:35:41 | Updated Mar 21, 2013

At the height of Europe's debt and banking crisis it seemed temptingly easy to simply jettison the euro altogether and opt for national devaluation.

Sometimes, if a country's currency is overvalued in real terms and it looks like the current account is going to be in deficit for the foreseeable future, devaluation can make sense. But the fallacy put about was that this process would be relatively easy and could be done without too much collateral damage to the rest of Europe. This fallacy only served to exacerbate the crisis in 2010 and 2011, creating unnecessary, time-wasting and distracting noise around the policy options.

An overwhelming number of economists, international civil servants and policy-makers argue that a fragmentation of the Eurozone would cause a new depression and massive wealth destruction around the world. It would also end the period of economic integration that has characterized world politics since the end of the Cold War.

All banks that have looked at the implications of a euro break-up reach roughly similar conclusions. For example, Swiss bank UBS estimates that it would cost each southern European economy up to 40 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) in the first year. And ING predicts that the Eurozone as a whole, including Germany, could see a 9 percent drop in GDP in the first year following break-up.

In short, the cost of devaluation would far exceed the supposed benefits. Here is why:

If even one country, large or small, were to leave the euro, the Eurozone would effectively rupture. The important founding notion of solidarity would be broken. Old rivalries could be reignited. If a highly productive economy such as Germany were to exit, it would mark the end of a 60-year commitment to a stable Europe. If a less productive economy exited, it would almost instantly become a pariah, exporting its pain to its neighbours.

Switching back to an old currency would also be a technical challenge and have to be done quickly. Who would set the exchange rate? New coins would have to be minted, new currency printed and new interest rates set by the central bank. Everything that was paid in euros -- from national debt to teachers' salaries -- would have to be switched back as quickly as possible to avoid financial chaos.

Unravelling a system that took three years to put in place would be much harder than people think. There would probably be a run on the banks, as depositors stampeded to withdraw their money, fearing for the value of their savings. Governments would be forced to impose withdrawal limits. Legal challenges and a likely credit crunch would follow, if Argentina's forced devaluation in 2002 is anything to go by. Investors would sell off assets and dump the country's bonds.

In addition, the government would almost certainly default on its foreign euro-denominated debt, leading to possible bank collapses at home and across the rest of Europe; such is the interdependence of the banking system. Access to international capital markets would be denied -- possibly for years -- forcing the country to bring its budget into balance immediately. The one potential advantage is that its debt, now redenominated in the new currency, might be significantly lower.

But while a devalued currency might make exports cheaper and therefore more attractive to foreign buyers, imports would become more expensive and cause a decrease in real incomes. It may improve the current account position temporarily, but it will not necessarily lead to longer term growth. Devaluation does not address the fundamentals of competitiveness. Restructuring the economy over the long term cannot be avoided.

Apart from all this, there is no legal framework for a member country to re-establish its own currency or for one member to expel another. Leaving would have far-reaching implications for a country's politics, finances, economy, society and future.

This post is part of a series by Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, based on his book The Re-emergence of Europe.