What Is Plan B for Greece?

TOKYO – Financial markets have greeted the election of Greece’s new far-left government in predictable fashion. But, though the Syriza party’s victory sent Greek equities and bonds plummeting, there is little sign of contagion to other distressed countries on the eurozone periphery. Spanish ten-year bonds, for example, are still trading at interest rates below US Treasuries. The question is how long this relative calm will prevail.

Greece’s fire-breathing new government, it is generally assumed, will have little choice but to stick to its predecessor’s program of structural reform, perhaps in return for a modest relaxation of fiscal austerity. Nonetheless, the political, social, and economic dimensions of Syriza’s victory are too significant to be ignored. Indeed, it is impossible to rule out completely a hard Greek exit from the euro (“Grexit”), much less capital controls that effectively make a euro inside Greece worth less elsewhere.

Some eurozone policymakers seem to be confident that a Greek exit from the euro, hard or soft, will no longer pose a threat to the other periphery countries. They might be right; then again, back in 2008, US policymakers thought that the collapse of one investment house, Bear Stearns, had prepared markets for the bankruptcy of another, Lehman Brothers. We know how that turned out.

True, there have been some important policy and institutional advances since early 2010, when the Greek crisis first began to unfold. The new banking union, however imperfect, and the European Central Bank’s vow to save the euro by doing “whatever it takes,” are essential to sustaining the monetary union. Another crucial innovation has been the development of the European Stability Mechanism, which, like the International Monetary Fund, has the capacity to execute vast financial bailouts, subject to conditionality.