Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s unexpected announcement in the early hours of Saturday that Greece will hold a referendum on July 5 on the bailout conditions creates a severe headache for ECB President Mario Draghi and the rest of the bank’s 25-person governing council. The ECB faces a choice between maintaining ample liquidity support for Greek banks and potentially undermining the ECB’s credibility as a rules-based institution, or forcing the closure of Greek banks and enraging Greece’s government and people.
But wonks and misconceptions do add to the artificial complexity of the thing.
Capital controls will not, of necessity, force Greece’s banks to close. Certainly, the weakest of them may close, but weak businesses should be allowed to fail. Nor are capital controls, of necessity, bad things themselves. To the extent they work—a matter of structure and enforcement, not a matter of controls qua controls—they’ll keep cash in the cash-starved country.
Nor would Draghi’s decision force anything onto the Greeks. Greece’s current strait is solely the result of Greek behavior over the years, including their post-global panic refusal to take seriously the need to reform their high-spending, high-taxing ways. An ECB decision to stop the lending would serve only to acknowledge a failure already in place.
Of course, the ECB must stop making short-term loans—loans it can have no expectation of being repaid—to the Greek central bank. Propping up, with what are really grants from the taxpayers of the rest of the eurozone, those banks that are, in turn, propped up by the Bank of Greece does nothing at all to solve the underlying economic and national debt (and so economic) problems faced by the Greek government and the people who elected it.
This is simple. The only thing hard about it—and it is a hard thing—is finding the political will to do the right thing when that thing is an unpleasant thing to do.