Greece: When the Trough Gets Smaller, the PIIGS Get Meaner!*
Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D.
The credit meltdown in Greece amplified the panic caused by a trading error to cause tumult in the stock market. While placing a sell order, an anonymous trader mistakenly entered ‘1 billion’ instead of ‘1 million’ (oh those pesky decimals…) The overreaction caused by the error subsided for the most part within an hour, but the unfolding events in Greece kept world markets in turmoil.
Watching crowds in Athens and other Greek cities participating in violent protests, to the point of killing 3 bankers, brought the impact of possible economic collapse up-front and personal. While Greece’s debt is not significant relative to other larger common market (EU) countries, it appears that the rest of the “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) are also teetering on the edge. Each of these countries has accumulated debt equal to 66%-124% of their GDP (Gross Domestic Product produced by a country). Since the gross U.S. debt is now 93% of our GDP, Jason Zweig suggests the US should be added to the acronym: “PIG IS US.”
If the workers in other countries resort to violence as a reaction to the cuts in pay, benefits, and pensions, then their leaders may not be willing to institute much needed reforms, and other EU countries will not be willing to lend money to the PIIGS. International banks have already reacted by tightening credit offerings to customers including other banks.
Early on, Britain managed to sidestep the allure of the Euro keeping control of the British Sterling. But even so their politicians have ignored the dire economics of their situation. Britain must reduce an annual deficit that hovers at 13% of GDP, which is even worse than the U.S. Public spending in Britain is now over 50% of their GDP. There are so many Brits dependent on government spending for their livelihood, that during the election earlier this month not one of the three national candidates mentioned cutting pensions or government benefits. Instead they all relied on the empty promises of populist insanity to ‘reduce fraud, waste, and abuse.’
There is widespread concern that the U.S. is heading down the same path. According to Barrons, government employees in the U.S. are paid 50% more than employees working equivalent jobs in the private sector. This disparity is mostly attributable to factoring in lavish benefits such as holidays, vacation time, generous early retirement packages, and life-long health care. This is why nearly half of the states and cities in the US have huge underfunded pension plans. Already there is an expectation that the federal government will come to the rescue, and some localities have been using Stimulus grants to continue paying pensions.
Currently, 58% of Americans receive all or part of their livelihood from the government. During the period from September 30, 2008 to December 30, 2009 the U.S. accumulated debt has mushroomed from $5.8 trillion to $7.8 trillion. Since then it has increased another 8% so that it now totals over $8.4 trillion. This does not include unfunded liabilities for Social Security, Medicare, and the new national health plan. The popular concern is that the U.S., along with other countries, will buckle under the weight of their spoiled citizenry and inflate their currencies.
But we have reached the point where the real danger is that investors may refuse to loan more money to subsidize nations currently living beyond their means. This is the downside of an interwoven global economy. The fear is that the Greece virus can start a cascade of “the deadly Ds” = downturns, deficits, more debt, downgrades, and defaults. Many on Wall Street expect another financial shock, not unlike the 2008 collapse of credit markets. There is rising concern even about the liquidity of money market funds.
Despite the fears of impending inflation coupled with the dread of more deflation, I would caution against extreme reaction. It is easy to underestimate the momentum of prosperity and the resilience of free countries. Many investors are wondering: “Are stocks undervalued now?” So what is a prudent investor to do?
First, don’t sell off your bond ladder. As bad as the U.S. economy looks right now, it is healthy relative to Europe and most of Asia, and is much more diversified. The economic situation is so complex at this time, that it would be foolhardy to try to predict the outcome with any degree of certainty. That is why U.S. bonds are still considered the monetary safe haven by the rest of the world. Many brokers are stampeding their clients into investments such as commodities, inflation-adjusted bonds, and emerging markets, but these are likely already overpriced and are subject to the mania of market timing.
Gold is a possibility, if it is held as gold bullion. Unfortunately right now the market is dominated with speculators, so selling gold at any given ‘market price’ is chancy. Dollar cost averaging into the market now may seem brazen, but will likely be the winning strategy for the long term. Finally, don’t pay off your 30-year fixed rate mortgage any faster than you have to and pay attention to your liquidity and cash flow.
The one change we are recommending to our clients is to move their cash from commercial money market funds to money market funds that exclusively hold government bonds.
Keeping a balanced investment portfolio that includes government bonds, diversified stocks, and cash has shown to protect clients through all types of economic cycles. Greece may be the harbinger of the New World Economy, but eventually politicians throughout the free world will have to wake up and smell the coffee.
*To paraphrase Dan Sullivan
I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY., as well as the blog editing by Susan Stanley