Translating Overseas Markets: Why Greece’s Debt And China’s Correction Loom

Communist Party of Greece
Greece Communist
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Translating Overseas Markets: Why Greece’s Debt And China’s Correction Loom

We’re seeing a wild turn of events in the geopolitical arena. Nations that are allegedly on the rise might not be as strong as they originally appeared. And other nations — ones not too strong in the first place — are only proving themselves weaker and weaker.

Right now there’s a European country fitting in the latter category. Its economy might not be especially bleak today… But down the road, it could very well be, depending on the response of this country’s neighbors.

So what’s a smart investor to do? Pay attention to the global markets, that’s what. As well, they should. What happens overseas has a ripple effect on your portfolio here at home, even if not necessarily right away.

One of the most recent examples of a faltering economy — and the debate on how to “fix” it — is occurring in the home of one of the world’s oldest civilizations…

<b>Keynes’ Folly Hits Home in Greece</b>

Who wants to bail out a very distant neighbor from the consequences of his foolish behavior?

European politicians are debating how to sell the idea of a bailout to their taxpaying, voting populations. This is an attempt to contain the damage from the last decade’s overspending of the Greek government. This government will default soon, unless we see a combination of sharp cuts in spending and a bailout from wealthier neighbors.

The stronger economies of Europe — the ones not driven by government spending and tourism — are in a pickle. If they let Greece default on its debt, the consequences for financial markets could be sharp and very painful. If they extend a lifeline to the Greek government, every other irresponsible government will line up for a bailout. At that point, everything may appear to be under control, but a few years down the road after a round of bailouts, the problem will emerge once again.

They will remain in place until the size of welfare states and banking systems fall in line with the productive capacities of the economies that support them.

The root of the problem is that the financial and, for lack of a better word, the “government spending” sectors of the global economy have grown too large. The sectors that produce valuable goods and services cannot afford to subsidize banking and government at their current sizes.

The resolution of this problem will take many years, and it will involve a combination of weak-to-flat global GDP growth and currency debasement. Banking and government finance much of their activity by being first in line to benefit from the inflation that’s constantly being created by central banks. This is a hidden tax on the productive economy.

At this point, it remains to be seen if German taxpayers will be generous enough to subsidize the lifestyles of Greek government employees.

German and French politicians may have voiced support for Greece, but, thus far, have not backed up words with concrete actions. Ultimately, the IMF may get involved in some fashion (which ultimately adds to the burden of U.S. taxpayers). In the meantime, this situation could get messier, and maintain pressure on the prices of risky assets like stocks.

The endgame of Keynesian policy is on display in Greece right now. The reputation of loose government spending as a serious policy will, by the end of 2010, be dealt some deserved blows.

<b>We’re Darned Because They Did</b>

These policies ultimately lead to bankruptcy, not prosperity. When responding to a criticism of the long-run costs of his prescriptions, John Maynard Keynes, (the economist so revered by fans of big government) quipped, “In the long run, we are all dead.” Well, he may be dead now, but plenty of people are still alive, and living with the consequences of his distorted view of reality. Production comes before consumption.

Hopefully, mainstream economists and politicians will have re-learned this simple truism by the time this rolling crisis has passed. But in the meantime, as we can see from our Greek example (in case we haven’t looked around America lately), overspending can get any nation’s government in trouble and stall its economic engine.

Greece is going to have a very long time to think about how it wasted its financial integrity away, and bankrupted the next several generations. (And Germany and other potential Good Samaritans will have even longer.) Here in the U.S., though, we’re faced with an even bigger problem than our European counterparts, mostly because we’re a bigger country and have even more debt than they do.

The problem is, the federal government’s massive debt means the U.S. has a long way to go to reach anything near a recovery. And as long as Uncle Sam keeps spending money he doesn’t have, the deeper in debt we’ll get. There’s also another country seeing red, and could be seeing a lot more of it than we’d ever thought…

<b>Why We’re Still Headed for a Correction at Home and in China</b>

Wall Street continues to position itself for a typical rebound from a typical inventory-led recession. The groupthink among Wall Street strategists shows astonishing consensus in a recent research piece published by Birinyi Associates.

Birinyi compiled all of the 2010 strategist forecasts and calculated the following averages: a yearend S&P 500 target of 1,222, in S&P 500 earnings, and 3.1% GDP growth. The deviation from these averages was not wide. These numbers might be plausible if this were a typical rebound from an inventory-led recession. But this is not what we’re experiencing.

Just consider today’s weak nonfarm payroll report. Government number crunchers estimate that the economy lost 85,000 jobs in December. Of course, this figure is highly massaged by seasonal adjustments and the “birth/death model,” which assumed that new businesses created 59,000 new jobs in December. Without the birth/death adjustment, the headline would have been 144,000 jobs lost.

The civilian labor force participation rate fell to a new low — 64.6% — as more discouraged workers give up looking for jobs. If these workers were considered by the statisticians to be looking for jobs, the headline unemployment rate would jump several percentage points.

To gauge the accurate health of the labor market, check the tax withholding figures. These figures are still down significantly year-over-year.

Job creation needs to turn highly positive quickly to justify the valuation of the stock market. The employment picture is also vital to the health of the credit markets and the banking system. The popular obsession over how long the Federal Reserve is going to hold short-term rates at zero distracts many investors from the destructive influence that high unemployment will have on credit quality.

The Fed’s extremely loose policies have sparked investors to take on more credit risk in the secondary markets. This has pushed up the prices of junk bonds and junk stocks, lowering yields. But if the labor markets don’t rebound dramatically from here, we’ll see accelerating credit losses on everything from mortgages to credit cards. Those who piled into junky credits due to zero interest rate policy will flee out of them due to rising defaults.

We’re in uncharted waters when we combine stubborn labor market weakness with heavy private sector debt loads. Credit losses are likely to surprise the market on the upside in 2010. This is especially dangerous for a banking system that’s marking its own assets at “mark-to-myth” levels.

Through several examples, it’s clear that the Treasury Department’s unofficial policy for dealing with underwater real estate loans is “extend and pretend.” This means that as long as underwater borrowers are making monthly payments, most bank examiners will look the other way and allow banks to mark loans at artificially high values. Bank regulators are also likely to look the other way if banks roll over maturing loans that are underwater on a mark-to-market appraisal basis.

But this isn’t cause for celebration. Instead, this mass denial of reality will only make the ultimate credit losses even larger. But this seems to be the policy, because it’s politically expedient and painless (for now).

Just like we saw in post-1990 Japan, “extend and pretend” will commit huge amounts of scarce capital in the banking system to defend bubble-era loans. Instead of extracting this capital out of bankrupt situations to be reinvested into new loans, we’re prolonging a misallocation of capital. By defending and maintaining old underwater loans at unreasonably high marks, most banks won’t have much room on their balance sheets for new lending. This one consequence of “extend and pretend”: continued tightness in lending for small businesses, which are the biggest job creators.

<b>A Correction in China Looms</b>

It’s likely that the growth we saw in emerging markets in 2009 will decelerate. China’s infrastructure-heavy stimulus package put Chinese people to work and boosted commodity imports from resource-rich countries like Brazil and Australia.

But this stimulus package is leading to excess capacity in real estate and many heavy industries like steel. It’s also gone hand-in-hand with mind-boggling growth in bank lending. Rapid growth in bank lending always leads to trouble.

So the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) is just now tiptoeing towards a tightening policy. The PBOC seems worried about the real estate bubble that’s now becoming more obvious in major Chinese cities. Earlier this week, the PBOC sold three-month bills at a higher (rather than lower) interest rate for the first time in 19 weeks. This is a clear