The most financially morbid article of 2011 comes from the Wall Street Journal. While we still await the killing off of the euro predicted by the FT's Wolfgang Munchau, EMU hater (more later), it appears that major European banks have wasted no time in paving the way for the return of the alphabet soup of currencies the continent had back in the day. The debate on whether benefits of a single currency outweigh those of having multiple currencies that can be debased at a whim--and which the likes of Italy did constantly--rages on. However, more forward-looking financial services providers are more interested in the practicalities of resurrecting these left for dead monies:
As the euro-zone debt crisis intensified in recent months, at least two global banks took steps to install back-up technology systems that could handle trades in old European currencies like drachmas, escudos and lire. That, the banks quickly found, is not so easy in a financial world that is trying to both exhibit confidence in the ailing euro and—just in case—plan for its possible demise.Those euro-wrecking Brits--with a large share of their economy in financial services--have been particularly active anticipating the endgame. There are even plans to repatriate UK citizens from these countries [!] if push comes to shove. (Remember the mini-fiasco of Brits stranded on the continent after the Icelandic volcano explosion grounded so many flights.) Anyway...
Technology managers at the banks contacted Swift, the Belgium-based consortium that manages the network used in financial transactions [the interbank transfer folks familiar to those who've sent money abroad], said people familiar with the matter. The banks wanted Swift's technology support and the currency codes that would be necessary to set up the backup systems.
But Swift declined to provide some information for such contingency planning, including whether old codes could be used in the system, said the people familiar with the matter. That is partly because officials there feared that releasing the information could fuel further doubts and instability in the euro zone, these people said.
Nevertheless, governments, finance firms and corporations have been quietly stepping up plans in the past several weeks to prepare for a worst-case scenario. The Financial Services Authority, the U.K.'s bank watchdog, has sent letters to the country's major banks asking for updates on their level of preparedness, and a similar dialogue has begun between banks and regulators in the U.S. in recent weeks, said the people familiar with the matter.And, of course, there is talk of setting up the infrastructure to revive old currencies that most thought left us for the Great Bank Vault in the Sky:
The U.K. Foreign Office has begun making contingency plans to evacuate U.K. residents from Spain and Portugal in the case of bank meltdowns in those countries, said a person familiar with the matter. In a sign of concern over stirring panic, a spokesman was tight-lipped about details apart to say that office is always preparing for all types of scenarios.
Currencies have three letter codes—such as USD for U.S. dollars—that banks use in a wide range of financial transactions, from complex investment-banking trades to the basic transfer of money. The codes are set by the Geneva-based International Standards Organization, and used by Swift, which is a co-operative company that formats and sends payment orders for some 10,000 firms in more than 200 countries.As I said, it's very financially morbid, but planning ahead dictates thinking about the endgame no matter what.
One question banks have, and have not been able to clarify, is whether codes for now-defunct currencies, such as GRD for the Greek drachma, will be valid in the current Swift system. A Swift spokesman said the company is ready to take whatever actions are required to maintain normal operations, but that "it is not appropriate this time for Swift to comment on issues specifically associated with the euro zone."
If a new currency emerges, it is handled by a maintenance agency affiliated with the International Standards Organization. A spokesman for that agency, SIX Interbank Clearing Ltd., said the agency has several projects looking at "dire scenarios" but the contingency plans for such scenarios have so far remained confidential.
Once a bank knows what the code is, it is relatively simple to set up a program for that new currency, according to technology experts. The bank must then tweak its infrastructure for expected volume and ensure data for counter-party banks are correct. Systems must then be modified and tested, said a technology executive at a bank in London, a process which takes one to two weeks.