Posts tagged ‘bailouts’

Floating Hedge Fund on Ice Thawing Out

These days, pundits continue to talk about how the same financial crisis plaguing Greece and its fellow PIIGS partners (Portugal, Ireland, Italy & Spain) is about to plow through the eurozone and then ultimately the remaining global economy with no mercy. If all the focus is being placed on a diminutive, calamari-eating, Ouzo-drinking society like Greece, whose economy matches the size of Maryland, then why not evaluate an even more miniscule, PIIGS prequel country…Iceland.

That’s right, the same Iceland that just four years ago people were calling a “hedge fund on ice.” You know, that frozen island that had more foreign depositors investing in their banks than people living in the country. Before Icelandic banks became more than 75% of the overall stock market, and Gordon Gekko became the country’s patron saint, Iceland was more known for fishing. The fishing industry accounted for about half of Iceland’s exports, and the next largest money maker may have been Bjork, the country’s famed and quirky female singer.

In looking back at the financial crisis of 2008-2009, as it turned out, Iceland served as a canary in the global debt binging coal mine. In order to attract the masses of depositors to Icelandic banks, these financial institutions offered outrageous, unsustainable interest rates to yield-starved customers. How did the Icelandic bankers offer such high rates? Well of course, it was those can’t-lose American subprime mortgages that were offering what seemed like irresistibly high yields. Of course, what seemed like a dream at the time, eventually turned into a nightmare once the scheme unraveled. Ultimately, it became crystal clear that the subprime borrowers could not pay the outrageous rates, especially after rates unknowingly reset to untenable levels for many borrowers.

At the peak of the crisis, the Icelandic banks were holding amounts of debt exceeding six times the Icelandic GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and these lenders suffered more than $100 billion in losses. One of the Icelandic banks was even funding a large condominium project in my neighboring Southern California city of Beverly Hills. When the excrement hit the fan after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, it didn’t take long for Iceland’s stock market to collapse by more than -95%; Iceland’s Krona to crumple; and eventually the trigger of Iceland’s multi-billion bailout by numerous constituents, including the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

Bitter Medicine First, Improvement Next

Today, four years after the subprime implosion and Lehman debacle, the hedge fund on ice known as Iceland is beginning to thaw, and their economic picture is looking much brighter (see charts below). GDP growth is the highest it has been in four years (4.5% recently); the stock market has catapulted upwards (almost doubling from the lows); and the Iceland unemployment rate has declined from over 9% a few years ago to about 7% today.

Source: Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

Re-jiggering a phony economy with a faulty facade cannot be repaired overnight. However, now that the banking system has been allowed to clear out its excesses, Iceland can move forward. One tailwind behind the economy has been Iceland’s weaker currency, which has led to a +17% increase in foreign tourist nights at Icelandic hotels through April this year. What’s more, tourist traffic at Iceland’s airport hit a record in May. Iceland has taken its bitter medicine, adjusted, and is currently reaping some of the rewards.

Although the detrimental effects of austerity experienced by the economies and banks of Greece, Spain, and Italy crowd out most of today’s headlines, Iceland is not the only country to make painful changes to its fiscal ways and then taste the sweetness of progress. Let’s not forget the Guinness drinking Irish. Ireland, like Greece, Portugal, and Spain received a bailout, but Ireland’s banking system was arguably worse off than Spain’s, yet Ireland has seen its borrowing costs on its 10-year bond decrease dramatically from 9.2% at the beginning of 2011 to about 7.4% this month (still high, but moving in the right direction). The same can be said for the United States. Our banks were up against the ropes, but after some recapitalization, tighter oversight, and stricter lending standards, our banks have gotten back on track and have helped assist our economy grow for 11 consecutive quarters (albeit at uninspiring growth rates).

The austerity versus growth debate will no doubt continue to circulate through media circles. In my view, these arguments are too simplistic and one dimensional. Every country has its unique culture and distinct challenges, but even countries with massive financial excesses can steer themselves back to a path of growth. A floating hedge fund on ice to the north of us has proven that fact to us, as we witness brighter days beginning to thaw Iceland’s chilly economy to expansion again.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Lehman Brothers, Guinness, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

June 24, 2012 at 10:42 pm 2 comments

Solving Europe and Your Deadbeat Cousin

The fall holidays are quickly approaching, and almost every family has at least one black-sheep member among the bunch. You know, the unemployed second cousin who shows up for Thanksgiving dinner intoxicated – who then proceeds to pull you aside after a full meal to ask you for some money because of an unlucky trip to Las Vegas. For simplicity purposes, let’s name our deadbeat cousin Joe.

Right now the European union (EU) is dealing with a similar situation, but rather than being forced to deal with money-begging cousin named Joe, the EU is being forced to confront the irresponsible debt-binging practices of its own relatives – the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). The European troika (International Monetary Fund/IMF; European Union/EU; and European Central Bank/ECB), spearheaded by German and French persuasion, is contemplating everything from prescribing direct bank recapitalization, bailouts via the leveraging of the EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility), ECB bond purchases, debt guarantees, unlimited central bank loans, and more.

New stress tests are being reevaluated as we speak. Previous tests failed in gaining the necessary credibility because inadequate haircuts were applied to the values of PIIGS debt held by European banks. European Leaders are beginning to gain some religion as to the urgency and intensity of the financial crisis. Just today, Germany’s chancellor (Angela Merkel) and France’s President (Nicolas Sarkozy) announced that they will introduce a comprehensive package of measures to stabilize the eurozone by the end of this month, right before the summit of the G20 leading global economies in Cannes, France.

Pick Your Poison

Whatever the path used to mop up debt excesses, the options for solving the financial mess can be lumped together in the following categories:

1. Austerity: Plain, unadulterated spending cuts is one prescription being administerd in hopes of curing bloated European sovereign debt issues. Negatives: Slowing economic growth, slowing tax receipts, potentially widening deficits (reference Greece), and political reelection self interests call into question the feasibility of the austerity option. Positives: Austerity is a morally correct fiscal response, which has the potential of placing a country’s financial situation back on a sustainable path.

2. Bailouts: The troika is also talking about infusing the troubled banks with new capital. Negatives: This action could result in more debt placed on country balance sheets, a potentially lower credit rating, higher costs of borrowing, higher tax burden for blameless taxpayers, and often an impossible political path of success. Positives: Financial markets may respond constructively in the short-run, but providing an alcoholic more alcohol doesn’t solve long-term fiscal responsibility, and also introduces the problem of moral hazard.

3. Haircuts: Voluntary or involuntary haircuts to principal debt obligations may occur in conjunction with previously described bailout efforts, depending on the severity of debt levels. Negatives: There are many different sets of constituents and investors, which can make voluntary haircut/debt restructuring terms difficult to agree upon. If the haircuts are too severe, banking reserves across the EU will become decimated, which will only lead to more austerity, bailouts, and potential credit downgrades. Such actions could hamper or eliminated future access to capital, and the cost of access to future capital could be cost prohibitive for the borrowing countries that defaulted/restructured. Positives: Haircuts eliminate or lessen the need for other more painful austerity or restructuring measures, and force borrowers to become more fiscally responsible, not to mention, investors are forced to conduct more thorough due diligence.

4. Printing Press: Buying back debt with freshly printed euros hot off the press is another strategy. Negatives: Inflation is an invisible tax on everyone, including those constituents who are behaving in a fiscally responsible manner. Positives: Not only is this strategy more politically palatable because the inflation tax is spread across the whole union, but this path to debt reduction also does not require as painful and unpopular cuts in spending as experienced in other options.

The Costs

What is the cost for this massive European debt-binging rehabilitation? Estimates vary widely, but a JP Morgan analyst sized it up this way as explained in the The Financial Times:

“In a worst-case, severe recession scenario, €230bn in new capital is needed to meet Basel III requirements, assuming a 60 per cent debt writedown on Greece, 40 per cent on Ireland and Portugal and 20 per cent on Italy and Spain, and that banks withhold dividends.”

 

More bearish estimates with larger bond loss haircuts, stricter regulatory guidelines, and harsher austerity measures have generated recapitalization numbers north of €1 trillion euros. Regardless of the estimates, European governments, regulators, and central banks are likely to select a combination of the poisons listed above. There is no silver bullet solution, and any of the chosen paths come with their own unique set of consequences.

As time passes and the European crisis matures, I am confident that you will be hearing more about ECB involvement and the firing-up of the printing presses. Perhaps the ECB will fund and work jointly with the EFSF to soak up debt and/or capitalize weak banks. Alternatively, and more simply, the ECB is likely to follow the path of the U.S. and implement significant amounts of quantitative easing (i.e., provide liquidity to the financial system via sovereign debt purchases and guarantees).

Dealing with irresponsible and intoxicated deadbeat second cousins (or European countries) fishing for money is never a pleasurable experience. There are many ways to address the problem, but ignoring the issue will only make the situation worse. Fortunately, our European friends on the other side of the pond appear to be taking notice. As in the U.S., if government officials delay or ignore the immediate problems, the financial market cops (a.k.a., “bond vigilantes”) will force them into action. In the recent past, European officials have used a strategy of sober talking “tough love,” but signs that the ECB printing presses are now beginning to warm up are evident. Once the euros come flying off the presses to detoxify the debt binging banks, perhaps the ECB can print a few extra euros for my cousin Joe.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in JPM, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm 2 comments


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