Posts tagged ‘Spain’

S.T.I.N.K. – Deja Vu All Over Again

Source: military.com

Yogi Berra is a Baseball Hall of Fame catcher and manager who played 18 out of 19 seasons with the New York Yankees. Besides his incredible baseball skills, Berra was also known for his humorous and witty quotes, which were called Yogi-isms.” Reportedly, one of Berra’s most famous Yogi-isms occurred after he observed fellow teammates, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, continually hitting back-to-back home runs:

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines déjà vu as “a feeling that one has seen or heard something before.” I experienced the same sense last month as I was bombarded with ominous news headlines. Some of you may recall the panic attack over the PIIGS regions during the 2010 – 2012 timeframe (Solving Europe & Deadbeat Cousin). I’m obviously not referring to the pork product, but rather Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, which rocked financial markets due to investor fears that Greece’s fiscal irresponsibility may force the country to leave the eurozone and drag the rest of Europe into financial ruin.

Suffice it to say, the imploding Greece/Europe disaster scenario did not happen. If you fast forward to today, the fear has returned again, however with a different acronym spin. Rather than speak about PIIGS, today the talking heads are fretting over S.T.I.N.K. – Spain, Tariffs, Italy, and North Korea.

*Worth noting, the letter “I” in S.T.I.N.K. could also be sustained or replaced by the word Iran, given the Trump administration’s desire to exit the Iran Nuclear Deal. The move comes despite support by our country’s tight NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) allies who want the U.S. to remain in the agreement.

An overview of S.T.I.N.K. unease is summarized here:

Spain: After a reign of six years, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is on the verge of being ousted to socialist opposition leader, Pedro Sanchez. Corruption convictions involving former members in Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party only increases the probability that the imminent no-confidence vote in the Spanish parliament will lead to Rajoy’s exit.

Tariffs: President Trump is lifting the temporary steel and aluminum tariff exemptions provided to many of our allies, including Canada, Mexico, and the European Union. Recent breakdowns in trade discussions with allies like Mexico and Canada are likely to make the renegotiation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) even more challenging. Handicapping President Trump’s global trade rhetoric can be difficult, especially given the periodic inconsistency in Trump’s actions relative to his words. Time will tell whether Trump’s tough trade talk is merely a negotiating tool designed to gain better trade terms for the U.S., or whether this strategy backfires, and trading partner allies choose to retaliate with tariffs of their own. For example, the EU has threatened to impose import taxes on bourbon; Mexico has warned about levying taxes on American farm products; and Canada is focused on the same steel and aluminum tariffs that Trump has been referencing.

Italy: Pandemonium temporarily set in when Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella essentially vetoed the finance minister selection by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Initially, Italian bond prices plummeted and interest rates spiked as fears of an Italian exit from the euro currency, but after the rejection of the original finance chief, the populist Five Star and League coalition parties agreed to institute a more moderate finance minister and bond prices/rates stabilized.

North Korea: The on-again-off-again denuclearization summit between the U.S. and North Korea may actually take place in Singapore on June 12th. In recent days, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has held face-to-face meetings with North Korean General Kim Yong Chol in New York. The senior North Korean leader is also planning to hand deliver a letter from Korean leader Kim Jong Un to President Trump in preparation for the nuclear summit. The U.S. is attempting to incentivize North Korea with economic relief in return for North Korea giving up their nuclear capabilities.

Thanks to S.T.I.N.K., volatility has risen, but the downdrafts have been relatively muted as evidenced by the moves in the stock averages this month. More specifically, the S&P 500 index rose +2.2% last month, while the technology-heavy Nasdaq index catapulted +5.3%. Nevertheless, not all indexes are created equally as witnessed by the Dow Jones Industrial Index, which climbed a more muted +1.1% for the month. For the year, the Dow is down -1.2%, while the S&P and Nasdaq indexes are higher by +1.2% and +7.8%, respectively.

Ever since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, observers have incessantly and anxiously waited for the return of a “stinky” economic and/or geopolitical catastrophe that will wreck the American economy. Unfortunately for the pessimists, stock prices have more than quadrupled in value since early-2009. Yogi Berra may have been correct when he said, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” but just like PIIGS concerns failed to cause global economic contagion, STINK concerns are unlikely to cause significant economic damage either. Over the last year, the only “stink” occurring has been the stink of cool, hard cash.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (June 1, 2018). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in 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 1, 2018 at 2:55 pm Leave a comment

Time to Trade in the Investment Tricycle

Boy on Tricycle

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary newsletter (May 1, 2013). Subscribe on the right side of the page for an entire monthly update.

As the stock market continues to set new, all-time record highs and the Dow Jones Industrial index nears another historic milestone (15,000 level), investors remain cautiously skeptical of the rebound – like a nervous toddler choosing to ride a tricycle instead of a bicycle. Investors have been moving slowly, but stock prices have not – the Dow has risen +13% in 2013 alone. What’s more, over the last four years the S&P 500 index (which represents large companies) has climbed +140%; the S&P 400 (mid-sized companies) +195%; and the S&P 600 (small-sized companies) +200%.

The gains have been staggering, but like the experience of riding a bicycle, the bumps, scrapes, and bruises suffered during the 2008-2009 financial crash have caused investors to abandon their investment bikes for a perceived safer vehicle…a tricycle. What do I mean by that? Well, over the last six years, investors have pulled out more than -$521,000,000,000 from stock funds and piled those proceeds into bonds (Calafia Beach Pundit chart below). For retirees and billionaires this strategy may make sense in certain instances. But for millions of others, interest rate risk, inflation risk, and the risk of outliving your money can be more hazardous to financial well-being, than the artificially perceived safety expected from bonds. The fact of the matter is investing inefficiently in cash, money markets, CDs, and low-yielding fixed income securities can be riskier in the long-run than a globally diversified portfolio invested across a broad set of asset classes (including equities). The latter should be the strategy of choice, unless of course you are someone who yearns to work at Wal-Mart (WMT) as a greeter in your 80s!

Fund Flows Data - Calafia Beach Pundit

Investor Training Wheels

Training Wheels I don’t want to irresponsibly flog everyone, because investing attitudes have begun to change a little in 2013, as investors have added $66 billion to stock funds (data from ICI). Effectively, some investors have gone from riding their tricycle to hopping on a bike with training wheels. With this change in mindset, surely people have commenced selling bonds to buy stocks, right? Wrong! Investors have actually bought more bonds (+$69 billion) than stocks in the first three months of the year, which helps explain why interest rates on the 10-year Treasury are only yielding a paltry 1.67% (near last year’s record summer low) – remember, bond buying causes interest rates to go down. If you really want to do research, you could ask your parents when rates were ever this low, but some readers’ parents may not even had been born yet. The previous record low in interest rates, according to Bloomberg, at 1.95% was achieved in 1941.

Over the last five years the news has been atrocious, and as we have proven, investing based off of current headlines is a horrible investment strategy. As we’ve seen firsthand, there can be very long, multi-year periods when stock performance has absolutely no correlation with the positive or negative nature of news reports. To better make my point, I ask you, what types of headlines have you been reading over the last four years? I can answer the question for you with a few examples. For starters, we’ve endured financial collapses in Iceland, Ireland, Dubai, Greece, and now Cyprus. At home domestically, we’ve experienced a “flash crash” that temporarily evaporated about $1 trillion dollars in value (and 1,000 Dow points) within a few minutes due to high frequency algorithmic traders. How about unemployment data? We’ve witnessed the slowest, jobless U.S. recovery in a generation (since World War II), and European countries have it much worse than we do (e.g., Spain just registered a 27% unemployment rate). What about political gridlock and brinksmanship? We’ve seen debt ceiling stand-offs lead to a historic loss of our country’s AAA debt status; a partisan presidential election; a deafening fiscal cliff debate; and now mindless sequestration. Nevertheless, large cap stocks and small cap stocks have more than doubled and tripled, respectively.

Fear sells advertising, and sounds smarter than “everything is rosy,” but the fact remains, things are not as bad as many bears claim. Corporations are earning record profits, and hold trillions in cash (e.g., Apple Inc.’s recent announcement of more than $50 billion in share repurchase and $11 billion in annual dividend payments are proof). Moreover, central banks around the globe are doing whatever it takes to stimulate growth – most recently the Bank of Japan promised to inject $1.4 trillion into its economy by the end of 2014, in order to kick-start expansion. Lastly, the U.S. employment picture continues to improve, albeit slowly (7.6% unemployment in March), allowing consumers to pay down debt, buy more homes, and spend money to spur economic growth.

Dangers of Being Informed

Mark TwainHopefully this clarifies how useless and futile newspaper headlines are when it comes to effective investing. As Mark Twain astutely noted, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” It’s perfectly fine to remain in tune with current events, but shuffling around your life’s savings based on this information is a foolish plan.

If the concerns and worries du jour have you nervously riding a tricycle, just realize that you may not reach your investment destination with this mode of transportation. I understand that it is not all hearts and flowers in the financial markets, and there are plenty of legitimate risks to consider. However, excessive exposure in low-rate asset classes may be riskier than many realize. If you’re still riding your investment tricycle, you’re probably better off by grabbing a helmet and pads (i.e., globally diversified portfolio) and jumping on a bike – you are more likely to reach your financial destination.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), WMT and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in 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.

May 4, 2013 at 8:18 am 1 comment

Financial Olympics: Chasing Gold, Siver & Bronze

Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary August 1, 2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

As a record number of 204 nations compete at the XXX Olympic Games in London, and millions of couch-watchers root on their favorite athletes, a different simultaneous competition is occurring…the 2012 Financial Olympics. So far, both Olympics have provided memorable moments for all. While the 2012 London Olympic viewers watched James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II parachute into a stadium filled with 80,000 cheering fans, investors cheered the Dow Jones Industrial Average above the 13,000 level on the same day of the opening ceremony. We have already witnessed a wide range of emotions displayed by thousands of athletes chasing gold, silver, and bronze, and the same array of sentiments associated with glory and defeat have been observed in the 2012 Financial Olympics. There is still a way to go, but despite all the volatility, the stock market is still up a surprising +10% in 2012.

Here were some of the key Financial Olympic events last month:

Draghi Promises Gold for Euro: Some confident people promise gold medals while others promise the preservation of a currency – European Central Bank President (ECB) Mario Draghi personifies the latter. Draghi triggered the controversy with comments he made at the recent Global Investment Conference in London. In the hopes of restoring investor confidence Draghi emphatically proclaimed, “The ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.” To view this excerpt, click video link here.

U.S. Economy Wins Bronze: Whereas Europe has been disqualified from the Financial Olympics due to recessionary economic conditions (Markit predicts a -0.6% contraction in Q3 eurozone GDP), the U.S. posted respectable Q2 GDP results of +1.5%. This surely is an effort worthy of a bronze medal given the overall sluggish, global demand. Fears over a European financial crisis contagion; undecided U.S. Presidential election; and uncertain “fiscal cliff” (automatic tax hikes and spending cuts) are factors contributing to the modest growth. Nevertheless, the US of A has posted 12 consecutive quarters of economic growth (see chart below) and if some clarity creeps back into the picture, growth could reaccelerate.

Source (Calafia Beach Pundit)

No Podium for Spain: Spain’s recent economic achievements closely mirror those of the athletic team, which thus far has failed to secure a sporting medal of any color. Why no Spanish glory? Recently, the Bank of Spain announced the country’s economy was declining at a -1.6% annual rate. Shortly thereafter, Spain estimated its economy would contract by -0.5% in 2013 instead of expanding +0.2%, as previously expected. Adding insult to injury, Valencia (Spain’s most indebted region) said central government support would be needed to repay its debts. These factors, and others, have forced the Spanish government to adopt severe austerity measures to cut its budget deficit by $80 billion through 2015. Spanish banks have negotiated a multi-billion-euro bailout, but they will have to hand control over to European institutions as a concession. Considering these facts, combined with an unemployment rate near 25%, one can appreciate the dominant and pervading losing spirit.

Global Central Banks Inject Financial Steroids: The challenging and competitive global growth environment is not new news to central bankers around the world. As a result, finance leaders around the world are injecting financial steroids into their countries via monetary stimulus (mostly rate cuts and bond buying). Like steroids, these actions may have short-term invigorating effects, but these measures can also have longer-term negative consequences (i.e., inflation). Here are some of the latest country-specific examples (also see chart below):

  • U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has already shot a couple “Operation Twist” and “QE” (Quantitative Easing) bullets, but as global growth continues to slow, he has openly acknowledged his willingness to dig into his toolbox for additional measures under the right circumstances, including QE3.
  • The PBOC (People’s Bank of China) surprised many observers by employing its second rate cut in less than a month. The PBOC lowered its one-year lending rate by 0.31% to 6%.
  • The ECB (European Central Bank) lowered its key lending rate by 0.25% to an all-time low of 0.75% and also cut its overnight deposit rate (the equivalent of our Federal Funds rate) by 0.25% to 0%.
  • Brazil’s central bank recently cut its benchmark Selic rate for the 8th time in a year to an all-time low of 8% from 12.5%.
  • South Korea’s central bank lowered its key interest rates by 0.25% to 3%, its first such action in three years.
  • The BOE (Bank of England) raised its quantitative easing goal by 50 billion pounds (~$78 billion).

 Source (Calafia Beach Pundit)

Banks Disqualified from Libor Games: As a result of the Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate) rigging scandal, Barclays CEO Robert Diamond resigned from the bank and agreed to forfeit $31 million in bonus money. Libor is a measure of what banks pay to borrow from each other and, perhaps more importantly, it acts as a measuring stick for determining rates on mortgages and other financial contracts. In an attempt to boost the perceived financial strength of their financial condition, multiple banks artificially manipulated the calculation of the Libor rate. Ironically, this scandal likely helped consumers with lower mortgage and credit card rates.

Rates Running Backwards: Sports betting on teams and events is measured by point spreads and numerical odds. In the global debt markets, betting is measured by interest rates. So while losing, debt-laden countries like Greece and Spain have seen their interest rates explode upwards, winning, fiscally responsible countries (including Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, and Finland) have seen their bond yields turn NEGATIVE. That’s right, investors are earning a negative return. Rather than making a bet on higher yielding bonds, many investors are flocking to the perceived safety of these interest-losing bonds (see chart below). This game cannot last forever, especially for individual and institutional investors who require income to meet liquidity and return requirements.

Source (The Financial Times)

China Wins GDP Gold Medal but No World Record: China currently leads in both the Olympic Games gold medal count (China 13 vs. U.S. 9 through July 31st) and GDP competition. Given the fiscal and monetary stimulus measures the government has implemented, it appears their economy is bottoming. Despite the tremendous anxiety over China’s growth, China’s National Bureau of Statistics just announced a +7.6% Q2 GDP growth rate (see chart below), down from +8.1% in Q1. Although this is the slowest growth since the global financial crisis, Even though this was the slowest GDP growth rate in over three years, most countries would die for this level of growth. Adding evidence to the bottoming storyline, HSBC recently reported the preliminary Chinese PMI manufacturing index rose to 49.5 in July, up from 48.2 in June – the highest reading since early this year (February).

Source (Calafia Beach Pundit)

Higgs Wins God Particle Gold: Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin are not the only people to win gold medals in their fields. Peter Higgs and fellow scientists had 50-years of their physics research validated when the Large Hadron Collider discovered the long-sought Higgs boson (a.k.a., the “god particle”). The collider, located on the Franco-Swiss border, measured approximately 17 miles in length, took years to build, and cost about $8 billion to finish. Pundits are declaring the unearthing of Higgs boson as the greatest scientific discovery since the sequencing of the human genome. Higgs’s gold medal may just come in the form of a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Source (The Financial Times)

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 Barclays 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.

August 4, 2012 at 8:22 am Leave a comment

Digesting the Anchovy Pizza Market

Source: Photobucket

Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary July 2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

I love pizza, and most fellow connoisseurs have difficulty refusing a hot, fresh slice of heaven too. Pizza is so universally appreciated that people consider pizza like ice cream – it’s good even when it’s bad (I agree). However, even the biggest, diehard pizza-lover will sheepishly admit their fondness for the flat and circular cheesy delight changes when you integrate anchovies into the mix. Not many people enjoy salty, slimy, marine creatures layered onto their doughy mozzarella and marinara pizza paradise.

With all the turmoil and uncertainty going on in the global financial markets, prudently investing in a widely diversified portfolio, including a broad range of equity securities, is viewed as palatable as participating in an all-you-can-eat anchovy pizza contest. Why are investors’ appetites so salty now? Hmmm, let me think. Oh yes, here are a few things that come to mind:

  • Presidential Election Uncertainty
  • European Financial Crisis
  • Impending Fiscal Cliff (tax cut expirations, automatic spending cuts, termination of stimulus, etc.)
  • Unsustainable Fiscal Debt & Deficits
  • Slowing Subpar Domestic Economic Growth
  • Partisan Politics and Gridlock in Washington
  • High Unemployment
  • Fears of a Hard Economic Landing in China

Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? So, what are most investors doing in this unclear market? Rather than feasting on a pungent pie of anchovies, investors are flocking to the perceived safety of low yielding asset classes, no matter the price. In other words, the short-term warmth and comfort of CDs, money market, checking, and fixed income assets are being gobbled up like nicotine-laced pepperoni pizzas selling for $29.95/each + tax. The anchovy alternative, like stocks, is much more attractively priced now. After accounting for dividends, earnings, and cash flows, the anchovy/stock option is currently offering a 2-for-1 special with breadsticks and a salad…quite the bargain!

Nonetheless, the plain and expensive pepperoni/bond option remains the choice du jour and there are no immediate signs of a pepperoni hangover just quite yet. However, this risk aversion addiction cannot last forever. The bond gorging buffet has gone on relatively unabated for the last three decades, as you can see from the chart below. In spite of this, the bond binging game is quickly approaching a mathematical terminal end-game, as interest rates cannot logically go below zero.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit with Sidoxia comments

Since my firm (Sidoxia Capital Management) is based in Newport Beach, next to PIMCO’s global headquarters, we get to follow the progression of the bond binging game firsthand. I’ve personally learned that if I manage close to $2 trillion in assets under management, I too can construct a 23-story Taj Mahal-esque headquarters that overlooks the Pacific Ocean from a stones-throw away.

Beyond glorified headquarters, there is evidence of other low-risk appetite examples. Here are some reinforcing pictures:

The Bond Binge

Source (The Financial Times): Bond purchases have exploded in the last three years.

Cash Hoarding

Source (Calafia Beach Pundit): Stuffing money under the mattress has accelerated in recent years as fear, uncertainty, and doubt have reigned supreme.

The Anchovy Special

Even though anchovy pizza, or a broadly diversified portfolio across asset class, size, geography, and style may not sound appealing, there are plenty of reasons to fight the urges of caving to fear and skepticism. Here are a few:

1) Growth Rolls On: Despite the aforementioned challenges occurring domestically and abroad, growth has continued unabated for 11 consecutive quarters, albeit at a rate less than desired. We are not immune to global recessionary forces, but regardless of European forces, the U.S. has been resilient in its expansion.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

2) Jobs and Housing on the Upswing: Unemployment remains high, but our country has experienced 27 consecutive months of private creation, leading to more than 4 million new jobs being added to our workforce. As you can see from the clear longer-term downward trend in unemployment claims, we are moving in the right direction.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

3) Eurozone Slowly Healing its Wounds: The Greek political and fiscal soap opera is grabbing all the headlines, but quietly in the background there are signs that the eurozone is slowly healing the wounds of the financial crisis. If you look at the 2-year borrowing costs of Europe’s troubled countries (ex-Greece), there is an unambiguous and beneficial decline. There is no doubt that Spain and Italy play a larger role than Portugal and Ireland, but at least some seeds of change have been planted for optimism.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

4) Record Corporate Profits: Investors are not the only people reading uncertain newspaper headlines and watching CNBC business television. CEOs are reading the same gloomy sensationalistic stories, and as a result, corporations have been cautious about dipping their short arms into their deep pockets. Significant expense reductions and a reluctance to hire have led to record profits and cash hoards. As evidenced by the chart below, profits continue to rise, and these earnings are being applied to shareholder friendly uses like dividends, share buybacks, and accretive acquisitions.

Source: Yardeni.com

5) Attractive Valuations (Pricing): We have already explored the lofty prices surrounding bonds and $30 pepperoni pizzas, but counter-intuitively, stock prices are trading at a discount to historical norms, despite record low interest rates. All else equal, an investor should pay higher prices for stocks when interest rates are at a record low (and vice versa), but currently we are seeing the opposite dynamic occur.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Even though the financial markets may look, smell, and taste like an anchovy pizza, the price, value, and return benefits may outweigh the fishy odor. And guess what…anchovies are versatile. If you don’t like them on your pizza, you can always take them off and put them on your Caesar salad or use them for bait the next time you go fishing. The gloom-filled headlines haven’t been spectacular, but if they were, the return opportunities would be drastically reduced. Therefore you are much better off by following investor legend Warren Buffett’s advice, which is to “buy fear and sell greed.”

Investing has never been more difficult with record low interest rates, and it has also never been more important. Excluding a small minority of late retirees and wealthy individuals, efficiently investing your retirement dollars has become even more critical. The safety nets of Social Security and Medicare are likely to be crippled, which will require better and more prudent investing by individuals. Inflation relating to food, energy, healthcare, gasoline, and entertainment is dramatically eroding peoples’ nest eggs.

Digesting a pepperoni pizza may sound like the most popular and best option given the gloomy headlines and uncertain outlook, but if you do not want financial heartburn you may consider alternative choices. Like the healthier and less loved anchovy pizza, a more attractively valued strategy based on a broadly diversified portfolio across asset class, size, geography, and style may be the best financial choice to satiate your long-term financial goals.

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 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.

July 2, 2012 at 10:08 am 1 comment

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


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