Before the Greeks say goodbye to the great European experiment, both Athens and the EU need to gird themselves for the mother of all economic fall-outs.
Is Greece ready to go it alone?
That's become the guessing game du jour after anti-austerity parties captured a shocking share of the vote in the latest Greek elections. But don't expect the drachma to return any time soon.
It won't be easy for either Greece or Europe to prepare for a divorce. If it was, they'd have already done so. Greece needs to get its budget ready, and Europe needs to get its firewall ready. The politics are terrible for both.
THE BUDGET AND THE FIREWALL
Right now, Greece is running a primary deficit. That means the Greek government would still need to borrow money even if it didn't have any interest payments to make. A euro exit and default wouldn't solve its austerity problem. A euro exit and default would create an even worse austerity problem -- or an inflation one. Remember: Greece is getting piles of cash from Europe as part of its bailout. Greece would lose that money if it defaults. And they wouldn't be able to replace it. Nobody wants to lend to them now and likely won't for a long, long time. Greece would have to either cut spending and raise taxes much more, or print the difference. It's a choice between hyperausterity and hyperinflation.
A premature Greek exit wouldn't be much better for Europe. It would set off a potentially euro-ending bank run. Depositors in Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy would pull their money out of local banks and move it to "safe" countries like Germany. The logic is simple: If countries can leave the euro zone, then not all euros are created equal. Euros in Italian banks might turn into cheaper lira overnight. Euros in German banks would stay euros -- or maybe even turn into stronger deutsche marks overnight. Investors would see this and bet on a breakup. Borrowing costs would soar.
There would only be one way to prevent a meltdown: Throw money at it. It would be the mother-of-all-bailouts to deal with the mother-of-all-bank runs. (A firewall is just a bailout fund that you haven't used yet). The ECB would have to buy bonds directly from troubled governments. And the Germans would have to give bonds to troubled governments -- a joint eurobond. It would take such a complete show of financial support to convince markets that Europe was determined to save itself at any cost.
But just as there is an unbalance of payments between Greece and Europe, there is also an unbalance of challenges. Greece's primary balance is more of an economic problem than a political hurdle. Europe's firewall is more of a political hurdle than an economic problem. That makes this a dangerous game.
NO DRACHMA (YET)
Neither side is ready for a split. Greece doesn't have a primary surplus and Europe doesn't have a genuine firewall. That gives both every incentive to kick the can a bit more. So that's exactly what we should expect -- for now.
The problem is that people eventually get tired of kicking the can -- and convince themselves that they might not need to.
As Greece gets closer and closer to a primary surplus, it will ask for more and more from Europe. That's basically what far-left leader Alexis Tsipras wants to do now. But Europe doesn't want to give in too much. Besides, Europe could just bailout everybody after a default, like the U.S. did with TARP. It would be messy -- and far worse than setting up a firewall in advance. But the world wouldn't end. So both sides might think that they have more leverage than they actually do. That's how you lose a game of chicken.
The safest strategy is simply to stop playing the game. Europe should create a firewall, kick Greece out of the euro, but then provide bridge loans to the troubled country.
But that's not happening. So the game goes on.