Let’s begin with the observation that irresponsible borrowers can’t exist without irresponsible lenders. Germany’s banks were Greece’s enablers. Thanks partly to lax regulation, German banks built up precarious exposures to Europe’s peripheral countries in the years before the crisis. By December 2009, according to the Bank for International Settlements, German banks had amassed claims of $704 billion on Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, much more than the German banks’ aggregate capital. In other words, they lent more than they could afford.
When the European Union and the European Central Bank stepped in to bail out the struggling countries, they made it possible for German banks to bring their money home. As a result, they bailed out Germany’s banks as well as the taxpayers who might otherwise have had to support those banks if the loans weren’t repaid. Unlike much of the aid provided to Greece, the support to Germany’s banks happened automatically, as a function of the currency union’s structure.
Here’s how it worked:
When German banks pulled money out of Greece, the other national central banks of the euro area collectively offset the outflow with loans to the Greek central bank. These loans appeared on the balance sheet of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, as claims on the rest of the euro area. This mechanism, designed to keep the currency area’s accounts in balance, made it easier for the German banks to exit their positions.
Now for the tricky part: As opposed to the claims of the private banks, the Bundesbank’s claims were only partly the responsibility of Germany. If Greece reneged on its debt, the losses would be shared among all euro-area countries, according to their shareholding in the ECB. Germany’s stake would be about 28 percent. In short, over the last couple of years, much of the risk sitting on German banks’ balance sheets shifted to the taxpayers of the entire currency union.
And here’s a scary thought on the political economy of permitting the euro zone to break up:
Before Germany’s banks pulled back their funds, they stood to lose a ton of money if Greece left the euro. Now any losses will be shared with the taxpayers of the entire euro area -- particularly France, whose banks still have a lot of outstanding loans to Greece. Perhaps this is what some German officials mean when they say that the euro area is better prepared for a Greek exit.
That’s not to say Germany wouldn’t suffer. Everyone in Europe — and everyone here — would suffer.