Dominoes, Deleveraging, and Justin Bieber
Despite significant 2011 estimated corporate profit growth (+17% S&P 500) and a sharp rebound in the markets since early October (+18% since the lows), investors remain scared of their own shadows. Even with trembling trillions in cash on the sidelines, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up +5.0% for the year (+11% in 2010), and that excludes dividends. Not too shabby, if you think about the trillions melting away to inflation in CDs, savings accounts, and cash. With capital panicking into 10-year Treasuries, hovering near record lows of 2%, it should be no surprise to anyone that fears of a Greek domino toppling Italy, the eurozone, and the global economy have sapped confidence and retarded economic growth.
Deleveraging is a painful process, and U.S. consumers and corporations have experienced this first hand since the financial crisis of 2008 gained a full head of steam. Sure, housing has not recovered, and many domestic banks continue to chew threw a slew of foreclosures and underwater loan modifications. However, our European friends are now going through the same joyful process with their banks that we went through in 2008-2009. Certainly, when it comes to the government arena, the U.S. has only just begun to scratch the deleveraging surface. Fortunately, we will get a fresh update of how we’re doing in this department, come November 23rd, when the Congressional “Super Committee” will update us on $1.2 trillion+ in expected 10-year debt reductions.
Death by Dominoes?
Is now the time to stock your cave with a survival kit, gun, and gold? I’m going to go out on a limb and say we may see some more volatility surrounding the European PIIGS debt hangover (Portugal/Italy/Ireland/Greece/Spain) before normality returns, but Greece defaulting and/or exiting the euro does not mean the world is coming to an end. At the end of the day, despite legal ambiguity, the ECB (European Central Bank) will come to the rescue and steal a page from Ben Bernanke’s quantitative easing printing press playbook (see European Deadbeat Cousin).
Greece isn’t the first country to be attacked by bond vigilantes who push borrowing costs up or the first country to suffer an economic collapse. Memories are short, but it was not too long ago that a hedge fund on ice called Iceland experienced a massive economic collapse. It wasn’t pretty – Iceland’s three largest banks suffered $100 billion in losses (vs. a $13 billion GDP); Iceland’s stock market collapsed 95%; Iceland’s currency (krona) dropped 50% in a week. The country is already on the comeback trail. Currently, unemployment (@ 6.8%) in Iceland is significantly less than the U.S. (@ 9.0%), and Iceland’s economy is expanding +2.5%, with another +2.5% growth rate forecasted by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in 2012.
Iceland used a formula of austerity and deleveraging, similar in some fashions to Ireland, which also has seen a dramatic -15% decrease in its sovereign debt borrowing costs (see chart below).
OK, sure, Iceland and Ireland are small potatoes (no pun intended), so how realistic is comparing these small countries’ problems to the massive $2.6 trillion in Italian sovereign debt that bearish investors expect to imminently implode? If these countries aren’t credibly large enough, then why not take a peek at Japan, which was the universe’s second largest economy in 1989. Since then, this South Pacific economic behemoth has experienced an unprecedented depression that has lasted longer than two decades, and seen the value of its stock market decline by -78% (from 38,916 to 8,514). Over that same timeframe, the U.S. economy has seen its economy grow from roughly $5.5 trillion to $15.2 trillion.
There’s no question in mind, if Greece exits the euro, financial markets will fall in the short-run, but if you believe the following…
1.) The world is NOT going to end.
2.) 2012 S&P profits are NOT declining to $65.
3.) Justin Bieber will NOT run and overtake Mitt Romney as the leading Republican candidate
…then I believe the financial markets are poised to move in a more constructive direction. Perhaps I am a bit too Pollyannaish, but as I decide if this is truly the case, I think I’ll go play a game of dominoes.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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