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Ask the experts

Dax index board at the Frankfurt stock exchange
Image caption Our experts answer your eurozone crisis questions

Last month, the BBC asked viewers what questions they had about their finances, particularly given fears about a renewed financial crisis and recession.

Here, BBC journalists Laurence Knight and Ian Pollock answer your questions about how the eurozone debt crisis might affect you.

Why, with the eurozone in crisis, is the pound still so weak against the euro? - Roy Waite, Carentoir, France

Put simply, the UK is in no better shape than the eurozone.

Both currency blocs (and the US for that matter) face the same economic malaise. Debts are too high, particularly household debts, so nobody wants to spend - not consumers, not businesses, not even governments.

That means interest rates in the UK and the eurozone are likely to remain very low for many years, making both currencies an unattractive place for investors to park their cash.

But thanks to the hawkish European Central Bank, eurozone interest rates have actually been somewhat higher than in the UK - and were even rising until recently - helping to push the euro's value up.

High interest rates and a strong euro have of course made things even harder for Greece and other heavily-indebted governments, and markets view their debts as very risky.

But the euro is also home to German government debt - considered an ultra-safe investment by markets.

Even if the more distressed eurozone governments defaulted on their debts, the consequences would be felt well beyond the eurozone's borders, much as the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was felt outside the US.

And if these countries left the euro, the value of the remaining, more German-dominated euro might actually go up.

How prepared are we, the Bank of England, etc, for a Greek default? - Robert W Warne, Cardiff

Crisis jargon buster
Use the dropdown for easy-to-understand explanations of key financial terms:
AAA-rating
The best credit rating that can be given to a borrower's debts, indicating that the risk of borrowing defaulting is minuscule.

Bank of England governor Mervyn King revealed in response to MPs' questions in June that the Bank was working with the Treasury to draw up contingency plans for a Greek default.

He did not give any details of what those plans are, nor have any emerged since.

The direct exposure of UK banks to Greece is fairly limited, but - as with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers - a Greek default could have a number of knock-on effects that affect the UK far more severely.

For example, it could lead to the failure of one or more European banks because of their exposure to Greece, or to a general loss of confidence in global banks, in the euro or in the debts of other over-stretched eurozone governments.

The plan may consider actions such as:

  • emergency cash loans from the Bank of England to the UK banks, if there is a collapse of market confidence in them
  • interventions to support other short-term cash markets, such as commercial paper markets, which are used by companies to fund themselves
  • the government injecting new loss-absorbing capital into the banks, if they suffer heavy losses because of the failure of a European bank or losses on other eurozone government debts
  • the Bank publishing details of an audit currently under way of the UK banks' exposures to the eurozone, in order to reduce uncertainty and restore confidence
  • monetary stimulus - such as cutting rates to zero and buying up more UK government debt - in order to head off a broader economic downturn
  • emergency tax cuts and/or spending increases by the government for the same purpose, with some of the resulting borrowing to be funded by the Bank of England's debt purchases
  • currency interventions if the euro were to drop significantly against the pound.

What would happen to euros in bank accounts in non-eurozone countries when/if the eurozone breaks up and turns into two or more different currencies? - Robert, Bath

You should check the terms of your bank account.

So long as the euro continues to exist - minus some members - your account should be unaffected.

If, for example, Greece left the euro, its government would probably pass a law overriding its existing euro contracts, as well as those of Greek banks, companies and individuals, redenominating them all into new drachmas.

Some legal experts have warned of a huge mess in these circumstances, with litigation brought by anyone who lost out on the conversion.

However, most financial contracts specify the law of a particular country as its "governing law". For a bank account in Athens or a Greek government bond, the governing law is Greece. So it would be hard for anyone to argue in court that these contracts should not be redenominated, if the Greek parliament says so.

But an account held in a non-eurozone country is likely to apply the law in that country, or the law of a popular jurisdiction such as England, New York or Germany. So it should be unaffected by a Greek redenomination law, unless your account is with a Greek bank.

If the euro ceased to exist altogether - with even Germany exiting - then what happens depends primarily on your account terms, assuming that they are not governed by the laws of one of the eurozone countries.

Your bank probably would have reserved the right to choose which national currency to use as a successor to the euro. Its choice would then be a commercial decision, based on how much it values its reputation and client relations over its own short-term financial gain.

Where does the European Central Bank get the money from to buy Spanish and Italian bonds? How much do they have available and what will they do if they use it all? - Peter Gray, Hitchin, Herts

Essentially the ECB, together with the "eurosystem" of 17 national central banks, can itself create the money that it uses to buy government debts.

There is therefore no theoretical limit to how much it can buy up.

When the ECB buys an Italian bond, it can pay for it by providing to the bond seller with a newly-created euro deposit at the seller's national central bank.

The seller can then use this deposit as "money" to buy other financial instruments, or it can redeem the deposit for newly-printed euro cash.

Practically, however, there are three limits on how much the ECB can do this.

The central bank's first priority is price stability. Creating new money is typically viewed as inflationary.

The ECB may try to reduce the impact of this money creation by borrowing the newly-created money back from the market, or by selling other assets it owns - German government bonds perhaps.

However, in the current heavily-depressed economy, many economists argue that money creation is not inflationary at all, at least in the medium-term, as banks are simply hoarding the money.

Secondly, the ECB may make losses on the bonds if Italy defaulted on its debts, or if it sold them back to the market at a lower price than it bought them.

The eurosystem has "capital" - money given to it by the eurozone governments when it was set up, plus profits it has made on its operations - of about 80bn euros that can absorb these losses.

But if the losses are too big, the ECB would need to be given new capital by the eurozone governments - something they are not legally obliged to do.

So the ECB may be concerned that any such bail-out could damage its cherished political independence.

Thirdly, the ECB is concerned not to distort markets too much, and in particular, not to discourage fiscal discipline by the Italian or Spanish governments by making it too easy for them to borrow.

I have three Spanish buy-to-let mortgages. I am saving sterling in the hope that the euro will collapse in value, to help pay off one of the mortgages. If a euro member leaves, is this likely to happen? If I default on the other two mortgages, can the bank take the one that I have just paid off? - Michael Sands, Northern Ireland

There are too many missing pieces of information to give you a sensible answer. Are the three properties in Spain or the UK? Is your lender in the UK or Spain? Were the loans in pounds or euros?

Whatever the facts, you appear to be in a hole, and as the former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once said, in that situation, you should stop digging.

Let's assume the properties are in Spain and you borrowed euros from a UK lender to buy them.

Your suggested strategy is complex and hinges on several different things going your way, which they may not.

Firstly, devaluation of the euro. That might happen if one or more countries left the euro, but equally the euro might in fact strengthen if just the weakest countries such as Greece and the Irish Republic leave.

If Spain left the euro and, presumably, readopted the peseta as the national currency, you might think you would benefit from a probable devaluation of the newly adopted peseta.

But you might still be legally obliged to repay your debts in euros, regardless of the new local currency in Spain. And again, the euro might not devalue but appreciate if Spain left.

So, your guess that economic upheaval will inevitably reduce the value of your euro-denominated debts may not be accurate.

Your ambition to default on two mortgages after paying off just the third is also off beam.

Firstly, it is arguably dishonest.

Secondly, if you borrowed from a UK lender, then unless they were asleep when they lent you the money, they will have a charge over all three properties.

They will be able to chase you for any outstanding debts, once they have seized the two defaulted properties and sold them.

The same applies if you borrowed from a lender in Spain. If you still owe them money after they have seized your two mortgaged homes and sold them, they can still pursue you for the debt, there and here.

If your finances are too distressed, default may be inevitable. But it will not be an easy escape route from the debts you took on.