Is Greek Tragedy Contagious?

I’ve written several blogs touching on Greece’s problems over the last 5 months (please see: Sovereign Subprime, Bonds and Cash Just Aren’t That Safe, Going Greek, Return of the Bond Market Vigilantes). But, as one of my long time readers noted, given recent events, it’s time for an update.

First, a review. Greece’s fiscal deficit is hitting double digits. When deficits get this large, countries find it difficult to issue debt and keep their currency from sliding in value. Greece, however, is in a unique position as a member of the European Union (EU) that also utilizes the euro as its currency. Greece’s fiscal and debt problems are not just their own, but an issue for the entire EU. This means more fiscally responsible countries like Germany and France are feeling compelled to bail out Greece. If they don’t, their economies will suffer, too, and the political/economic experiment that is the EU will go into the dustbin of history (as have all other pseudo-unions of this sort).

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, Greece’s tragic movie is coming to theaters near you, because Greece’s issues are and will be repeated the world over. This includes western Europe’s sick brothers: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and Spain; several eastern European countries; several South American countries; and will soon feature such first world countries as the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States.

If this sounds like hyperbole to you, I don’t blame you. But, let me explain.

Greece’s problems are not a product of bad luck or bad timing, but are self-imposed. Like Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, Greece’s government promised benefits it couldn’t possibly pay out. Greece’s economy is saddled with a huge public sector that has overly generous pay, benefits and pensions. Now that Greece needs to trim back those benefits to get its fiscal house in order, public sector employees are taking to the streets in violent protest. This is shutting down its economy. This may be hard to believe for Americans, but Greece’s Air Force protested by not coming to work this week! When the defense sector goes on strike, things are out of hand.

How can Greece solve its problems? It must cut public spending and grow the economy. Only then can it pay back its debt burden. This is no more complex than a family running up too much credit card debt–the solution is to spend less, make more money, and pay off debts. But, Greece’s family is refusing to cut spending while its public sector is preventing growth. Not a pretty picture.

Greece is not alone in having made such unfulfillable promises. Close on its heels are Portugal and Spain. What made news this week was what debt markets noted months ago: the credit worthiness of Greece, Spain and Portugal is degrading–the rating agencies snapped out of their stupor and finally downgraded Spain, Portugal and Greece. In fact, Greece was cut all the way to junk.

So now Greek tragedy is spreading to the weaker brothers of Europe. Who is next in line? Italy and Ireland, and then eastern Europe, and so on. The problem is that this could feed on itself. If the EU, primarily Germany and France, don’t nip this in the bud, the problem will grow over most of Europe. What turns this into a negative feedback loop is that when credit ratings are cut and interest rates soar, it becomes more difficult to cut spending and grow your way out of the problem.

How does this impact the U.K., Japan and the U.S.? All three have made promises they can’t keep; all three hope to grow beyond their obligations instead of cutting benefits; all three assume they can grow by selling products to places like Europe, China, etc. All three face Greece’s problems, but at an earlier stage. If they don’t reduce cut spending or grow strongly enough, they will before long find themselves in their own Greek tragedy.

If you don’t think the U.S. (or the U.K., or Japan) has such a problem with its public sector, check again. Our states and municipalities have made enormous promises to public sector employees–promises that almost any actuarial accountant will tell you are unfulfillable. How do you think teachers, policemen, fire-fighters, motor vehicle administrators, etc. will react when we say we need to cut their pay, benefits and pensions? Perhaps not with violent street protests, but certainly not with simple resignation.

Greece’s overwhelming problems will not visit us tomorrow, but they will come over time. Even if Greece’s problems are solved, which will probably cost the EU (and International Monetary Fund (IMF)) 180 billion euros over the next 3 years, the EU still has to deal with Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland. How many hundreds of billions of euros before France and Germany are pulled down, too?

Greece’s problems are turning into Spain and Portugal’s problems, which are turning into France and Germany’s problems, which will eventually hurt the U.K., Japan and U.S.

With all that, what are the investing implications?

1) Buying sovereign bonds or holding cash is more dangerous than it may seem. If you must hold bonds, hold corporate or inflation protected bonds. If you must hold cash, gold is the way to go.

2) The world economy is likely to continue growing despite these issues. Fiscal stimulus from Europe, Japan, the U.S. and China will not run out until later this year, and until that happens, sovereign subprime will be a side issue. But, markets are likely to be more volatile than they have been over the last year, so owning something that does well in more volatile markets will probably be beneficial.

3) For the long run, buy blue chip, franchise companies and lowest cost commodity producers. Great companies have pricing power and not much debt, so they will be able to grab market share, grow, and adapt to changing times. When longer term sovereign issues raise their head more significantly, interest rates will spike, currencies will tank, and commodities will thrive. Owning lowest cost producers will be very profitable.

4) The timing on these issues coming to a head will be almost impossible to get right. If Germany decides to be nationalistic and kicks Greece out of the EU, markets will react right away. If the EU bails out Greece, then Portugal, then Spain, then Italy, etc. this could drag out over a long time. If you can read minds and know how sovereign powers will react, you can get the timing right; for the rest of us mortals, trying to time the markets will prove to be a fool’s errand.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.