Greece’s Two Currencies

ATHENS – Imagine a depositor in the US state of Arizona being permitted to withdraw only small amounts of cash weekly and facing restrictions on how much money he or she could wire to a bank account in California. Such capital controls, if they ever came about, would spell the end of the dollar as a single currency, because such constraints are utterly incompatible with a monetary union.

Greece today (and Cyprus before it) offers a case study of how capital controls bifurcate a currency and distort business incentives. The process is straightforward. Once euro deposits are imprisoned within a national banking system, the currency essentially splits in two: bank euros (BE) and paper, or free, euros (FE). Suddenly, an informal exchange rate between the two currencies emerges.

Consider a Greek depositor keen to convert a large sum of BE into FE (say, to pay for medical expenses abroad, or to repay a company debt to a non-Greek entity). Assuming such depositors find FE holders willing to purchase their BE, a substantial BE-FE exchange rate emerges, varying with the size of the transaction, BE holders’ relative impatience, and the expected duration of capital controls.

On August 18, 2015, a few weeks after pulling the plug from Greece’s banks (thus making capital controls inevitable), the European Central Bank and its Greek branch, the Bank of Greece, actually formalized a dual-currency currency regime. A government decree stated that “Transfer of the early, partial, or total prepayment of a loan in a credit institution is prohibited, excluding repayment by cash or remittance from abroad.”