China and Greece: sound and fury signifying nothing?

Just a couple of weeks ago, you couldn’t look at the news without seeing dire predictions about Greece leaving the European Union or China’s stock market tanking. Now, it seems like these perils have passed and there’s nothing to worry about. That’s unlikely the case.

I’m an optimist by nature, and I tend to think things will work out in the long run. That does not, however, make me a Pollyanna. I don’t think that problems in Greece or China are the end of the world. But, I also think it’s naive to think that such issues were insubstantial and likely to fade with so little hardship.

Greece still can’t pay back its loans, and they are still demonstrating little desire to reform. European lenders still want their loans repaid, and seem unlikely to grant Greece forgiveness for large amounts of debt. In other words, the situation hasn’t really changed, and therefore still requires careful observation.

China’s stock market did not tank because of some bizarre conspiracy. Like all markets that have been artificially pumped up, it must necessarily deflate. Any attempts to defy that natural process are doomed to fail one way or the other. The underlying issue of China’s economy slowing down has not changed. The political and economic consequences are non-trivial and demand watching.

Markets have a natural ebb and flow, just like nature. And, just like nature, those ebbs and flows are largely unpredictable over the short term. That doesn’t mean you can’t see broader themes evolving. It was easy to see that the tech bubble of the late 1990’s would pop, but impossible to predict when. It was easy to see that the housing market of the mid 2000’s would burst, but impossible to predict precisely when.

Greece and China have real problems that will eventually reverberate throughout the global economy. I don’t know precisely when these issues will loom large, but I do know they haven’t been resolved. This is not a good time to ignore those risks.

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.

China and Greece: sound and fury signifying nothing?

China: more important than Greece

While most of the world was overly focused on Greece, bigger things were afoot in China.

First, the Chinese economy is the 2nd largest in the world. What happens in China matters for the world economy. In contrast, Greece’s economy is but 2% of the European economy. Although Greece’s problems are likely to become broader problems in Portugal, Spain, Italy and France, by itself Greece doesn’t have a big impact on the world economy.

Second, China’s economy is still essentially run by a communist central planning authority. They are giving some free market principles a try, but they have maintained a firm grip on the most important things. How they react to the inevitable ups and downs any economy faces is important for understanding how the world economy will do in coming years and decades.

Over the last year, the Chinese government has been showing they aren’t ready for prime time. First, they have reacted to economic slowing–inevitable in any economic system, whether capitalistic, communistic, socialistic, etc.–with attempts to prop things up. As usual, such attempts look good in the short term but fail over time. Governments just aren’t any good at allocating capital.

Second, they are misreading market reactions and have basically lost their cool. After trying to use free markets to boost their economy, they are now trying to prevent markets from clearing by forcing large stockholders to hold instead of selling. There is nothing that spooks markets more than a government’s attempts to force the outcome they want instead of the natural equilibrium that would otherwise exist.

This a classic reversal of cause and effect. Stock markets, like all markets, react to news by adjusting prices to make supply and demand match at market clearing prices. Any attempt to prevent that mechanism from operating in the short term leads to disastrous effects in the long run. Markets are effects, not causes, contrary to how many politicians and historians like to interpret the facts.

The more the Chinese government continues to overreact and try controlling outcomes, the more world markets will overreact as a result. Such impacts will be much worse than letting markets find equilibrium. Just witness commodity price swings in reaction to Chinese intervention and you can get a flavor for how nasty things can get. 

I think what is going on in China should be watched much more closely than what is happening in Greece. The stakes and consequences are much greater.

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.

China: more important than Greece

It’s all Greek to me

It’s been five years since I’ve written about Greece. Given the market’s current infatuation with that subject, it’s not a bad time to revisit the topic.

To recap: Greece borrowed a lot of money that it can’t currently repay (some would say: can never repay). The Greek government, I’ve read, pays out three euros for every one they take in as tax, so the basic math is unsustainable.

Five years ago, many thought that Greece defaulting would cause a cataclysmic market failure that would lead to a domino effect in multiple markets. At the time, the recency of the 2008-2009 economic collapse made this possibility seem very real and scary. So, Greece was bailed out and given more time to work out its issues.

Greece has not made much headway. When people get used to not paying taxes, they don’t eagerly jump into paying them again. When people get used to receiving government checks, they don’t willingly stop cashing them just because they’ve heard the government doesn’t really have the money. That’s just how most people function.

When a lender lends money, both the lender and the borrower end up with some responsibility. Greece is clearly responsible for paying off its debts. At the same time, the lenders are responsible for lending money to a country that–without massive structural changes–can’t repay those loans. Both Greece and its lender may be indignant, but they’ve both played a part in creating the current crisis.

The basic math says that Greece can’t repay its debts, and that it shouldn’t get additional loans until it reasonably commits to specific measures that will enable it to sustainably pay back its loans. The negotiations between Greece and its lenders that keep failing are about which side has to give up the most.

Greece’s leader was recently elected to make European lenders carry more of the responsibility. He has carried through on his campaign promises by defaulting on loans in order to force a better deal. He has also put Europe’s terms to the test by putting them up for a popular vote on Sunday. I don’t think anyone knows the outcome of that vote.

What is different now from five years ago? There’s been five years for people to alter contracts, make contingency plans, and just get mentally prepared for Greece to default and to potentially leave the euro currency, European Union or the European Community. The damage now wouldn’t be as great as it was five years ago.

The scarier prospect is that Portugal, Spain, Italy, and perhaps even France may end up in the same situation several years from now (they all have structural problems that haven’t been fixed, though none as bad as Greece), and that the European currency/Union/Community could completely come apart. This would not be the end of the world, but it would create a lot of inefficiencies that would slow global growth permanently.

There is always some possibility of a greater market contagion. For example, suppose some bank or government or hedge fund owns a LOT of securities that head south if Greece defaults or dumps Europe. Suppose also that they bought those securities with short term debt and they have to sell other securities to repay their loans, thus forcing down the prices of other, non-Greece related securities. Then, those price declines lead other indebted securities holders to have to sell their securities, etc. You get the picture. I don’t think that is likely, but market contagions have occurred in the past on just such similar lines.

The more important point of Greece’s situation is that governments and people aren’t above the laws of economics. They may not like economic laws, but they can no more be avoided than the laws of physics, chemistry, etc. 

Governments, just like people, can’t spend more money than they take in. 1) Printing money 2) shifting budgets, 3) giving away other people’s money doesn’t create economic growth. Only production creates growth, and governments aren’t productive. The laws of economics will hold up whether anyone likes it or not. The sooner people face that reality, the sooner we can all go back to being productive and growing again.

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.

It’s all Greek to me

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.

Going Greek

Markets were, again, disturbed by news from Greece this week.

For those of you who don’t pay much attention to these things, Greece is in a serious fiscal bind. You see, their fiscal deficit looks to be around 13% of gross domestic product.

When a country typically crosses the double-digit barrier, their interest rates spike and their currency tanks. Markets don’t like it when a borrower’s revenue falls short of it’s obligations by more than 10%. It indicates the borrower may default.

Greece, however, is in a unique position. It is part of the European Union and has adopted the euro as its currency. The result is that Greece’s problem is really western Europe’s problem.

It reminds me of the joke about borrowing from a bank. When you borrow $10 thousand and are having problems making payments, it’s your problem. But, when you borrow $10 million from the bank and are having problems making payments, it’s the bank’s problem.

Greece is Europe’s problem, and that has markets much more nervous than if it were just Greece’s problem.

Economic and currency unions have not stood the test of time. None have lasted. For this reason, many are skeptical the euro or European Union will last, either.

Greece is exacerbating these fears because many market participants worry that Greece’s problems could break up the union. The euro is down almost 15% from its peak (hopefully this trend will continue at least until my trip to Paris this May), and these issues are part of the reason.

What seems to be lost in this shuffle is that the rest of the world is going Greek, too. The movie in Greece may soon replay in the rest of the world, and by players too big to be bailed out by Germany or France. Niall Ferguson eloquently pointed this out in the Financial Times yesterday.

For example, look at the good ole U.S. of A. Our fiscal deficit is also in double digits this year. For that matter, Japan, the United Kindgom, Ireland and Spain find themselves with similarly difficult fiscal positions.

Some of the biggest economies are going Greek, and the investment implications are important.

For now, it looks like the global economy is recovering. This will likely provide a temporary respite from these fiscal problems. But, eventually, the piper will need to be paid.

When that happens, it might be nice to be far from government bonds and have some downside protection in place. When the world goes Greek, it won’t simply “disturb” markets.

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.