How a euro break-up could affect your holiday money

Talk is increasingly turning away from saving the euro to how to break it up in an orderly manner. Matthew Partridge examines what this would mean for anyone holding euro notes.

For a few months there, Europe fell out of the headlines, as a small dose of money printing by the European Central Bank allayed fears that we were on the verge of a repeat of 2008.

But as Spain's current woes demonstrate, you'd have been wrong to think that the euro crisis was over. The Spanish economy seems to be in freefall, with nearly a quarter of people out of work. The failure of the latest Spanish bond auction suggests that it will need more support from the rest of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Another sign that the euro in its present form could be doomed is the fact that talk is shifting from how to save it, to the best way to wind it down. The chief executive of Next, Lord Wolfson, recently put up a £250,000 prize to encourage proposals for the best way for a country to exit the euro in a relatively undisruptive manner.

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The shortlist for the prize has now been announced. The five listed proposals make for interesting reading. While they disagree on many of the key issues, they do give us a better idea of what would be likely to happen in the transition period. And this has important implications for any euro notes that you have stashed away (for instance from holidays) and the currency in general.

The need for quick action

There is a clear consensus that any change will need to be swift. As Roger Bootle of Capital Economics points out, it would be hard to keep any decision to leave secret for long. The trouble is, any leak could lead to "actions which could obviously be bad for the overall process (e.g. if they involved mass bank deposit withdrawals)".

Jonathan Tepper of Variant Perception agrees. He thinks that the exit of a single country from the euro would lead to bank runs on other weak countries. He points out that in past devaluations, "the more advance notice people have, the greater the ability to hoard valuable currency or get rid of unwanted currency".

Both Bootle and Tepper expect that any changes will therefore be sudden and backed up by Bank Holidays and capital controls. This will make it hard to get around them once you hear about it on TV it will be too late.

So what are the implications? It is clear that holding a savings account in one of the countries under attack would not be a wise move. This is because any euros are likely to be forcibly converted to the new currency. However, the position of notes and coins in general is less clear especially those held by foreign investors.

Tepper thinks that all euro assets, including cash, held outside the exiting countries would remain denominated in the main currency good news for British investors. Only coins and notes in the countries of ex-members would be turned into the national currency.

If this is indeed what happens then you don't need to worry. However, it is far from certain especially since it doesn't deal with a situation where the euro completely fragments.

Look at the serial number on your euros

Overall, the outlook for the euro is poor. As we've argued previously, if Greece and some of the other weaker countries leave, the political realities mean that the remaining members may still be forced to lend them large sums of money.

But the outlook for some types of euro might be even poorer.

Neil Record, the chief executive of Record Currency Management Limited, thinks there is an easier solution to the shenanigans involved in breaking up the eurozone and it's a solution that could hit the unwary hard.

All euro notes are already stamped with a code indicating the country in which they were issued. Record also thinks that most currency has stayed within the borders of the country in which it was issued.

As a result, national governments could use this code as the basis for a temporary currency system. This means that you could wake up one morning to find that the code on your euro notes meant that they were only valid in one country.

This would not be a problem if they came from Germany, Holland or even France but it would be if they were from any of the periphery countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain).

So if you're really worried about that euro stash you have or you have a significant number of euros it might be worth going through the notes to look for toxic codes. Prefixes to look out for are M (Portugal), S (Italy), T (Ireland), V (Spain) and Y (Greece).

Once you've identified the notes from at-risk countries, you can either prioritise using them on your next trip to the eurozone, or simply convert them back into sterling.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri