by Landon Thomas Jr | NY Times
November 2 2011
The political upheaval in Athens has suddenly made the once unspeakable — Greek debt default — a distinct possibility.
Unthinkable: that Greece might end its 10-year use of the euroand return to its former currency, the drachma.
Such a move is still officially anathema in Athens. But a growing body of economists argues that it would be the best course, whatever the near-term financial and economic implications. And now, with a referendum on the European-led bailout facing Greek voters, a vocal minority that has long called for a return to the drachma might find itself with a growing group of listeners.
A return to the drachma is unlikely to offer a quick cure for Greece’s ills. Default on the nation’s $500 billion in public debt would become a certainty, depositors would take their money out of local banks and, with a sharp devaluation of as much as 50 percent, inflation would loom. A return to the international credit markets would take years.
But drachma defenders contend that these worst fears are overdone. Yes, there would be disruption and panic initially. But, they say, pointing to Argentina’s case when it broke its peg with the dollar in 2002, the export boom ignited by a cheaper currency and the ability to control the drachma would eventually work in Greece’s favor.
“The real problem is that we are operating under a foreign currency,” Vasilis Serafeimakis, a senior executive at Avinoil, one of Greece’s largest oil and gas distribution companies, said of the euro. In the last year, he has been banging the bring-back-the-drachma drum.
“If we had our own currency, we could at least print money,” Mr. Serafeimakis said, referring to the ability to revalue the drachma. “And what is the worst thing that happens if we do this? I don’t get a Christmas gift from one of my bankers.”
His voice is still a lonely one.
According to a recent poll in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, 66 percent of Greeks believe that returning to the drachma would be bad. But proponents of a euro exit say that beneath the surface, more Greeks are beginning to question the euro.
“The view that Greece should exit the euro is more widespread than you would think,” said Costas Lapavitsas, a Greek economist at the University of London who has long pressed for a return to the drachma. “It is just that the opposing view is so dominant.”
Until now, many Greeks have been wedded to a European identity forged by a national embrace of the euro and the wealth that, for a time, came along with it. Talk of returning to the drachma had mainly been held up as an apocalyptic vision rather than a viable policy option.
But for a growing number of Greeks, the collapse of their economy is apocalypse enough.
Prime Minister George A. Papandreou threw down the gauntlet to the Greek people Monday when he surprised the world by announcing a referendum on the latest bailout plan. But it was his finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, who that same day put a finer point on the question.
“Are we for Europe, the euro zone and the euro?” he asked. Or, he continued, does Greece return to the drachma?