(NYT) U.S. Companies Brace for an Exit From the Euro by Greece. This indicates the depth of the crisis and the likely outcome

By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ
Published: September 2, 2012

Even as Greece desperately tries to avoid defaulting on its debt,
American companies are preparing for what was once unthinkable: that
Greece could soon be forced to leave the euro zone.

Tracking Europe’s Debt Crisis

Bank of America Merrill Lynch has looked into filling trucks with cash
and sending them over the Greek border so clients can continue to pay
local employees and suppliers in the event money is unavailable. Ford
has configured its computer systems so they will be able to
immediately handle a new Greek currency.

No one knows just how broad the shock waves from a Greek exit would
be, but big American banks and consulting firms have also been doing a
brisk business advising their corporate clients on how to prepare for
a splintering of the euro zone.

That is a striking contrast to the assurances from European
politicians that the crisis is manageable and that the currency union
can be held together. On Thursday, the European Central Bank will
consider measures that would ease pressure on Europe’s cash-starved
countries.

JPMorgan Chase, though, is taking no chances. It has already created
new accounts for a handful of American giants that are reserved for a
new drachma in Greece or whatever currency might succeed the euro in
other countries.

Stock markets around the world have rallied this summer on hopes that
European leaders will solve the Continent’s debt problems, but the
quickening tempo of preparations by big business for a potential Greek
exit this summer suggests that investors may be unduly optimistic.
Many executives are deeply skeptical that Greece will accede to the
austere fiscal policies being demanded by Europe in return for
financial assistance.

Greece’s abandonment of the euro would most likely create turmoil in
global markets, which have experienced periodic sell-offs whenever
Europe’s debt problems have flared up over the last two and a half
years. It would also increase the pressure on Italy and Spain, much
larger economic powers that are struggling with debt problems of their
own.

“It’s safe to say most companies are preparing,” said Paul Dennis, a
program manager with Corporate Executive Board, a private advisory
firm.

In a survey this summer, the firm found that 80 percent of clients
polled expected Greece to leave the euro zone, and a fifth of those
expected more countries to follow.

“Fifteen months ago when we started looking at this, we said it was
unthinkable,” said Heiner Leisten, a partner with the Boston
Consulting Group in Cologne, Germany, who heads up its global
insurance practice. “It’s not impossible or unthinkable now.”

Mr. Leisten’s firm, as well as PricewaterhouseCoopers, has already
considered the timing of a Greek withdrawal — for example, the news
might hit on a Friday night, when global markets are closed.

A bank holiday could quickly follow, with the stock market and most
local financial institutions shutting down, while new capital controls
make it hard to move money in and out of the country.

“We’ve had conversations with several dozen companies and we’re doing
work for a number of these,” said Peter Frank, who advises corporate
treasurers as a principal at Pricewaterhouse. “Almost all of that has
come in over the transom in the last 90 days.”

He added: “Companies are asking some very granular questions, like ‘If
a news release comes out on a Friday night announcing that Greece has
pulled out of the euro, what do we do?’ In some cases, companies have
contingency plans in place, such as having someone take a train to
Athens with 50,000 euros to pay employees.”

The recent wave of preparations by American companies for a Greek exit
from the euro signals a stark switch from their stance in the past,
said Carole Berndt, head of global transaction services in Europe, the
Middle East and Africa for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“When we started giving advice, they came for the free sandwiches and
chocolate cookies,” she said jokingly. “Now that has changed, and
contingency planning is focused on three primary scenarios — a
single-country exit, a multicountry exit and a breakup of the euro
zone in its entirety.”

Banks and consulting firms are reluctant to name clients, and many
big companies also declined to discuss their contingency plans,
fearing it could anger customers in Europe if it became known they
were contemplating the euro’s demise.

Central banks, as well as Germany’s finance ministry, have also been
considering the implications of a Greek exit but have been even more
secretive about specific plans.

But some corporations are beginning to acknowledge they are ready if
Greece or even additional countries leave the euro zone, making sure
systems can handle a quick transition to a new currency.

In Europe, the holding company for Iberia Airlines and British Airways
has acknowledged it is preparing plans in the event of a euro exit by
Spain.

“We’ve looked at many scenarios, including where one or more countries
decides to redenominate,” said Roger Griffith, who oversees global
settlement and customer risk for MasterCard. “We have defined
operating steps and communications steps to take.” He added:
“Practically, we could make a change in a day or two and be prepared
in terms of our systems.”

In a statement, Visa said that it too would also be able to make “a
swift transition to a new currency with the minimum possible
disruption to consumers and retailers.”

Juniper Networks, a provider of networking technology based in
California, created a “Euro Zone Crisis Assessment and Contingency
Plan,” which company officials liken to the kind of business
continuity plans they maintain in the event of an earthquake.

“It’s about having an awareness versus having to scramble,” said
Catherine Portman, vice president for treasury at Juniper. The company
has already begun moving funds in euro zone banks to accounts
elsewhere more frequently, while making sure it has adequate money and
liquidity in place so employees and suppliers are paid without
disruption.

FMC, a chemical giant based in Philadelphia, is asking some Greek
customers to pay in advance, rather than risk selling to them now and
not getting paid later. It has also begun to avoid keeping any excess
cash in Greek, Spanish or Italian bank accounts, while carefully
monitoring the creditworthiness of customers in those countries.

“It’s been a very hot topic,” said Thomas C. Deas Jr., an FMC
executive who serves as chairman of the National Association of
Corporate Treasurers. Members of his group discussed the issue on a
conference call last Tuesday, he added.

American companies have actually been more aggressive about seeking
out advice than their European counterparts, according to John
Gibbons, head of treasury services in Europe for JPMorgan Chase.

Mr. Gibbons said a handful of the largest American companies had
requested the special accounts configured for a currency that did not
yet exist.

“We’re planning against the extreme,” he said. “You don’t lose
anything by doing it.”