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Consequences of Grexit for Germany

The debate about "Grexit" - a possible Greek exit from the eurozone - is back in full swing. Berlin has been downplaying the risks, but such a move would have serious consequences for Germany's taxpayers.

Bertelsmann Foundation painted a worst-case scenario of the consequences of a Grexit in a study published in 2012: A contagion of eurozone exits could break out, and the global economy could drop off a cliff into a deep recession. Germany alone would lose more than 130 billion euros ($153.72 billion) within eight years.

Today, everyone is calmer. Discussion of a possible Greek exit from the eurozone is no longer considered taboo - even for Chancellor Angela Merkel. Der Spiegel newsmagazine reported last weekend that Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, consider Grexit a manageable scenario, despite the risk that some of Greece's 320 billion euros of debt would have to be recognized as unrepayable.

Very, very expensive - but not for the banks

Since the study in 2012, a lot has changed, says Joachim Fritz-Vannahme from the Bertelsmann Foundation. As a result, the nightmare scenario Bertelsmann painted in 2012 is less plausible.

"Eurozone politicians and the European Central Bank have tried all kinds of things to strengthen the currency's defenses and put it on a more solid foundation. But disaster still cannot be completely ruled out," Fritz-Vannahme said.

It's very hard to predict how capital markets would react to a Greek default. A bankruptcy of the Greek state would likely result from Grexit. That would have massive consequences for the Greeks. But there would be consequences in the balance sheets of German banks as well. However, the claims of German banks on Greek debtors have recently greatly reduced during the past couple of years, according to the German Banking Association.

Alexis Tsipras 29. Dec. 2014

The leader of Greece's leftist party, Syriza, wants Greece to stay in the eurozone - but he demands an end to austerity policies.

In total, the Greek state, Greek corporations and Greek citizens owe about 23 billion euros to German banks. Most of that is owed to KfW, Germany's state-owned development bank.

Public money at risk

"The exposure of German private capital to Greece has been declining," says Fritz-Vannahme. German banks are therefore unlikely to panic at the prospect of Grexit."

"The German taxpayer's losses, however, are likely to be significantly higher than they would have been 2012," he said. "The German government's guarantees have increased significantly. So for the taxpayer, Grexit might be very, very expensive."

The German government has extended loan guarantees to Greece currently worth around 50 billion euros.

"This money is in the line of fire, but we are not going to get it back in the short term - at best perhaps in the long term," Thomas Straubhaar, Professor of International Economics at the University of Hamburg told German radio.

Greece will be unable to repay its debts, regardless of whether or not the country stays in the eurozone or not, Straubhaar said.

"The costs for Germany are equally huge either way," he said.

Symbol pic Stresstest Banks

Grexit would hit German taxpayers much harder than banks. Since 2012, politicians have transferred Greek default risks from private onto public balance sheets.

Diminished risk of contagion

What about the risk of a financial wildfire, a contagion of eurozone exits? Experts say it's not nearly as high as it was in 2012, when finance professionals speculated about a possible exit from the eurozone by Spain, Portugal or Italy.

If Greece were to leave the euro zone now, there would be little impact on other European countries, according to Michael Schroeder from the Centre for European Economic Research in an interview broadcast on Deutschlandfunk.

But Bertelsmann Foundation's Fritz-Vannahme says Grexit could still have a dangerous effect on other weak euro countries. He warns against letting the Grexit debate get going again.

"Otherwise, we could face the same arguments as in 2012: fears of a domino effect that could generate a global recession."