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A Front-Row Seat At A Bank Run

An Alpha Bank branch in Athens.
Petros Giannakouris/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A decade ago, investors thought Greece would flourish on the euro. Money poured in, and banks started lending it out. Thefilos Papacostakis, a bank teller at Alpha Bank in Thessaloniki, got to hand out a lot of that money.

Last month, Thefilos says, his bosses called him in for a meeting. They told him things were about to get worse. When countries are in this kind of trouble, the bosses said, people panic and pull their money out of banks.

A few weeks ago, his customers started calling: "They say, 'Thefilos, tomorrow I'm going to need 50,000 euros, cash.'

"I say, 'Maybe cashiers check.'

" 'No, no. Cash.' ...

"And then, half an hour later, somebody else will say, 'Thefilos, I need 200,000 euros.' "

If Greece leaves the euro — which now seems like a distinct possibility — the money in Greek banks will be converted into drachmas, and will suddenly be worth a lot less.

The thing about bank runs is that they can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. People see other people pulling their money out, and they rush to do the same. So at first, Thefilos says, he was angry when he saw people pulling their money out of the bank.

But after a couple of weeks of counting out stacks of euros and sending customers' money to other countries, it doesn't feel like such a big deal.

"It's like a doctor," he says. "The first time he makes a surgery, he throws up and faints. And then after the thousandth operation, he doesn't feel any difference."

Thefilos says he doesn't have much money himself. But if he did, he might have pulled it out of the bank already.

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