The European Community’s solution to the Greek debt crisis has been an exercise in kicking the can down the road for well over two years. Unfortunately, this Greek Tragedy is now taking on the dimensions of a three ring circus and taking the world’s financial markets along with it.
This week the volatility in the stock markets was reminiscent of the bad old days of 2008-2009. The on-again, off-again status of Greece’s promised next installment of last year’s bailout package was the chief cause of concern. The money was promised to Greece, if it cut the country’s deficit of $40 billion. So far that hasn’t happened. The Greek population has taken to the streets once again to prevent the passage of this new austerity package while Greek’s ruling party is disintegrating.
In the meantime, Germany, the money man of Europe, has been insisting that the European private sector banks with large outstanding loans to Greece also become a party to any additional bail-outs of the country. Germany’s Angela Merkel had been insisting that 1) European financial institutions agree to give Greece an extra seven years to repay its bonds or 2) agree to a “Vienna-style” solution of swapping their existing Greek bonds for lower interest-bearing bonds.
The problem with scheme number 1 is that the moment the private banks are forced to take a loss on their Greek debt holdings, global credit agencies would deem Greece in default. That would set off a number of sirens simultaneously in several markets. Countries with similar problems would see their bonds plummet.
The credit default swap market (CDS) would also be shaken. The CDS is where banks go to buy insurance against default by governments or corporate entities. I would guess, for example, that it costs $2 million or more every year just to insure these banks against a Greek default. But the European Central Bank is determined that any Greek debt restructuring should not trigger such a “credit event” that would enable buyers of CDS to be compensated from swap insurance sellers.
That leaves option number 2, a Vienna-style scheme that would involve convincing banks to voluntarily accept new Greek bonds for old bonds at much lower rates of interest. That way the banks (and their shareholders) take the hit to their balance sheets and the insurance they hold would be of no value (because they would agree to take the hit “voluntarily.”). I say good luck to that plan.
Investors would be smart enough to see right through that farce. They would dump their remaining European bank shares, any debt they might hold in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland, etc., and would call into question the CDS insurance market overall. If governments can engineer defaults without calling them defaults, then what good is the disaster insurance that banks pay millions for each year?
Fortunately, we only have to wait until Monday for the outcome of this latest chapter in the ongoing saga of European debt restructuring. Euro zone finance ministers are meeting in Luxembourg Sunday and will hopefully agree on some formula or compromise with Greece. Remember too that this is only an installment not a solution. It will only push the specter of default out until September. Then we get to kick the can down the road for another three months.
I am convinced that the International Monetary Fund and the European Community’s response to the debt crisis of the PIGS nations won’t work. Something radical such as a debt-for-equity swap, combined with a debt forgiveness plan, ala Latin America in the Eighties, will be the ultimate solution to this crisis. On Friday, Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann agreed with me. He said that simply forcing Greece to impose austerity and reduce its budget deficit won’t solve the crisis; it will only force the economy to contract further. He called for the creation of a European-style Marshall Plan, referring to the massive U.S. inspired “soft” loan plan to rebuild post WW II Germany.
As for our markets, I maintain we are close to a bottom. Whether the S&P 500 Index bottoms at 1,275, 1,250, or worst case, 1,225, investors should be looking at equities. However, this time around I don’t think commodities will lead the market. Instead, I would be looking at large-cap dividend stocks, the health care and some consumer staples as possible focus areas.