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Independent Investor: Europe's Banking Crisis
By: Bill Schmick On: 09:21PM / Thursday August 18, 2011
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Investors are selling first and waiting for the facts later. Few can blame them given their experience in 2008-2009. Investors in the stock market sustained huge losses by naively believing that the financial sector and the government were in control of that crisis. This time around, no one believes anything they say.

The problem is compounded by the fact that this financial crisis is located in Europe where different rules apply, where the political and financial systems are different and where even the time zones play a part. Wednesday's panicked selloff was largely a result of a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal that revealed that the Federal Reserve Bank is scrutinizing the U.S. subsidiaries of all the European banks.

The Fed is worried that Europe's banks, faced with a dwindling supply of cash to pay off loans and remain solvent, are emptying the cash coffers of their U.S. operations. The latest Fed data, according to the WSJ, indicated that over the last three weeks, the cash reserves of these American subsidiaries have declined by 16 percent.

There was also a mention that one European bank borrowed $500 million in a one week loan from the European Central Bank at a higher interest rate than could be borrowed from fellow lenders at a cheaper rate. Investors sold first, assuming that, in at least this one case, some European bank was in deep financial trouble and where there is smoke there is usually fire. The facts do not support that conclusion — at this time. European banks still have massive reserves here, as much as $600 billion or more.

"At this time" is key because Friday the facts could change and during our financial crisis the facts did change, to our detriment, quite often. Because of our recent past, investors have no faith in either government's or the banking community's ability to solve our economic or financial problems. We have even less faith (if that's possible) in the European Union. Some of that disbelief is warranted. After all, the EU is an economic, not a political union. Given that there has never been a successful union that did not incorporate both politics and economy, the Achilles Heal of Europe is now surfacing.

This week the Europeans tried several initiatives that disappointed investors. First, several European nations announced new rules to prevent short selling of their banking stocks. The U.S. did the same thing during our financial crisis which proved to be both short-lived and completely ineffective. Within three days those same banking stocks were down 10 percent or more as investors simply found new ways to sell those stocks.

A meeting between Germany and France on Tuesday had the markets hoping that the two power houses of Europe would announce new, sweeping initiatives that might finally come to grips with the spreading European crisis. Instead, Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that Euro-zone leaders should meet more often and recommended appointing a new Euro-zone chief, but didn't say what kind of power they would have in dictating EU policy. Big deal!

Remember the $157 billion Greek bailout that was supposed to be signed, sealed and delivered? Well, not quite; it appears several nations want cash-strapped Greece to provide cash as collateral in exchange for their participation in the bailout loan. It seems a growing swell of anti-bailout sentiment is rising in an increasing number of countries.

Coupled with these disappointing developments, Germany's most recent GDP second-quarter data indicated annualized growth has slowed to 0.05 percent. That punctured any hope that Germany, whose economy was considered the locomotive of Europe, would continue to support overall growth of the 17 Euro nations. Add a banking crisis, coupled with a deep distrust of existing authority, the increasing fear of a double-dip recession and the lack of political unity equals a continued wave of panic selling.

What could turn this around? A once and for all comprehensive plan by Europe to solve their burgeoning debt crisis might be the answer. But can that be done without addressing the "Elephant in the Room," i.e., political unity? Probably not, if a politically-divided U.S. Congress can't come to an agreement on our economic issues, how hard will it be for the EU to do the same?

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: Greece, bailout, Europe, banking crisis      
@theMarket: One Down, One to Go
By: Bill Schmick On: 01:26PM / Saturday July 23, 2011
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On Friday, the European Union announced a new $157 billion bailout plan for Greece. The scope of the plan went much further than most investors expected. It promised to finance all countries that need bailouts for as long as it takes for them to recover. There's more.

I refer to the new plan as the "Full Monty" (see my column "Europe Goes the Full Monty") because it is the first time in the 18-month long crisis that European leaders were willing to draft a comprehensive approach to the financial crisis among the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain).  The plan will be proactive in heading off any further financial contagion among its members while fencing in those that already are in trouble (Portugal, Ireland and Greece).

The deal does allow for a "selective default" in Greece, where some but not all of its debt will be written off or renegotiated at lower terms and lengthened maturities. The plan does not go as far as I might have wished but in the real world of European politics it appears the best that they could do. In my opinion, the crisis appears, if not over, to be at least contained for now.

That crisis is one of two large clouds that have been hanging over the markets for months. The other bailout issue is in our own backyard. And, as I suspected, our elected representatives are stretching out the tension as long as they can. Both sides are glorying in their extra media attention, using their 10-15 seconds of sound-bite glory to appear concerned, tough and "on your side" (while raising as much additional campaign funds as possible for next year's elections).

Here are a summary of client questions and my answers this week on this on-going travesty:

"Will the debt ceiling be raised by the August 2 deadline?”

I'm betting yes, but that still leaves 11 days of volatility in the bond and stock markets.

"What will happen after the deadline, if the ceiling isn't raised?"

As I wrote last week, the markets will decline in the short term, presenting a buying opportunity for anyone brave enough to venture into equities.

"Will the Gang of Six deficit-reduction plan be passed?"

I suspect some version of that plan will be passed but the question is when. The Republicans want to prevent any legislation that might improve the economy or reduce unemployment until after next year's elections. They hope voter frustration over the economy will propel their party's candidates into office and defeat a re-election bid by President Obama.

Unfortunately, the nation's financial credit agencies are not cooperating with the GOP timetable. They have made it clear that without a serious, comprehensive deficit–cutting plan in the ballpark of $4 trillion or more, they will cut the U.S. debt rating. I suspect we will be on "credit watch" until a deficit reduction deal is passed, which means that we will be assaulted by this back-and-forth bickering for some time to come.

"If and when the deficit plan is passed, can we go back to whatever normal is?”

That depends. I believe that cutting spending and raising taxes in an economy that is struggling to gain momentum exposes this recovery to extreme danger. Cutting spending too deeply while raising taxes too much (and shrinking the money supply) is exactly what nipped a fledgling recovery in the bud and sent the U.S. economy into a depression in the '30s. Ask yourself this question: do you feel confident that a bunch of madmen in Washington have the ability to strike just the right balance in order to grow the economy while reducing the deficit?

But let me worry about that. It will take weeks, if not months, for such a compromise to be worked out. In the meantime, this last storm cloud appears to be moving to the edge of the horizon for now. I expect some real progress on a compromise next week.

The economy may be inching along, but corporate profits are booming. This earnings season so far is seeing the vast majority of companies beat earnings and increase guidance. This debt crisis is repressing what should be a buoyant stock market. Like a coiled spring, stocks are just waiting to bounce higher. If and when the debt ceiling is passed, that will happen.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: Greece, PIGS, bailout, Europe, deb ceiling      
Independent Investor: Europe Goes the Full Monty
By: Bill Schmick On: 11:24PM / Thursday July 21, 2011
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Full Monty: "everything which is necessary, appropriate, or possible; 'the works.'"    

— Oxford English Dictionary

A new rescue plan for Greece is being hammered out in Brussels today, Thursday. Although the details are yet to be released, it appears that the European Community is finally going for an overall plan that will do more than just Band-Aid over the debt crisis of southern Europe.

Greece, of course, is the bad boy of that continent but Ireland, Portugal and even larger economies like Spain and Italy are being added to the list of troubled nations. Up until now, the EU has grudgingly provided bailout money in exchange for economic austerity measures that have only driven these countries into deeper recessions and increased social discontent.

The new aid package to be announced will be a departure from this bankrupt strategy. Instead, the EU will tackle the root cause of the issue and reduce the overwhelming debt burdens of Greece, Portugal and Ireland. It will allow the EU's rescue fund, called the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), not only to buy that debt but also reissue new debt (loans) at much lower interest rates. It could also extend the maturities on new loans to these countries from an average of 7.5 years to 15 years or more.

The EFSF will also be able to aid troubled banks by lending money to various euro-zone governments (who will then bail out their banks) pre-emptively. No longer will governments have to wait for the crisis to hit before doing something about it. The EFSF will also be able to buy and sell sovereign debt of any of these countries on the open market in cooperation with the European Central Bank. That should discourage rampant speculation in these instruments, which has exasperated the crisis.

These moves, which were all rejected by Germany up until now, will form the basis of the equivalent of a Marshal Plan for Europe. I believe it is the best plan yet to address the financial contagion that has been pulling down one country after another within the EU. By reducing existing debt to manageable proportions and giving the beleaguered nations breathing room to repay it over many more years, the burden becomes more manageable. No longer will Greece, Portugal and Ireland have to slash spending and raise taxes while scrambling to find a way to pay back the loans and grow their economies all at the same time.

I had maintained that it was impossible to accomplish that feat. Readers may recall that over the last year I have been writing (and hoping) that the EU would see the light. This program, while not exactly the route I would have taken, is far more comprehensive than their past plans of simply kicking the can down the road.

An important change, and one that the European Central Bank had been resisting, is the possibility of allowing a "selective" default occur in Greek government debt. How that would happen is still not clear but it might include a bond-exchange program, a write-down of some of the debt or a buy back by the EFSF of a portion, say 20 percent, of heavily discounted Greek bonds.

The markets have been wrestling with just how such a default would impact Europe's banks, which hold billions of Euros in the sovereign debt obligations of the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Will a "selective" default of some Greek debt trigger the credit agencies to move toward a more negative stance on EU banks? If today’s prices of European bank stocks are any indication, the markets believe that there is a plan to avoid the credit agency's wrath.

All we know at this time is that private institutions in the financial sector will be given a number of alternative methods on how to assist in financing Greece's debt now and in the future. Some of the ways this can be accomplished are debt exchanges, roll overs and/or buy backs of existing debt.

I am sure that the details will need to be ironed out and, as usually happens with a plan this large, it will be a work in progress with lots of trial and error. What is important is that Europe's leaders have finally come to understand that the theatre we have been watching for almost two years needed drastic changes. The solution to the Greek financial crisis demanded that the actors revisit the stage with a new act. This week they have responded with an economic Fully Monty. I say, Bravo!  

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: Greece, PIGS, bailout, Europe      
@theMarket: Greece — How To Default Without Defaulting
By: Bill Schmick On: 12:47PM / Saturday June 18, 2011
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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 bailouts 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 No. 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 No. 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 on 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, a la 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-World War 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.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: Greece, PIGS, bailout, Europe      
@theMarket: Bumps in the Road
By: Bill Schmick On: 08:42AM / Saturday May 28, 2011
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Investors are worried. They are worried that the end of QE II will spell disaster. They are worried that European bank woes will spill over onto our shores. They are worried that the economy is stalling and inflation is trending higher. Yet, with all these worries, the markets have held their own over the last few weeks.

I'm not going to dismiss these concerns, although we need to remember that markets often climb a wall of worry. Admittedly, there have been so many downgrades of sovereign debt lately that it's hard to keep track. The PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) have had to make room this week for Japan. That island nation joined the ranks of downgrades in large part due to the economic impacts of the recent earthquake and tsunami.

The governments of the PIGS countries, in the meantime, have responded by implementing austerity measures, hiking taxes and selling off state assets.

These belt-tightening policies have not had the desirable effect either in the economic or in the sociopolitical arena. Anger and fear among the population have spawned demonstrations, strikes and political upheaval.

"Just say no," has been the message of various opposition parties within the region.

The voters are listening. Spain's Socialist Party, for example, was hammered in recent elections. Ireland kicked out its prime minister, Greece's opposition parties are making it impossible for the government to make deeper austerity cuts and demonstrations have replaced dancing as a national pastime.

Although "no" sounds good, especially to the youth, it unfortunately provides little in the way of solutions to the PIGS financial crisis. But regime change (or the threat of one) has made ruling parties drag their heels in implementing reform. In the meantime, the debt continues to pile up and the financially sound countries within the EU are becoming increasingly impatient.

Readers may recall that I expressed serious doubts over a year ago when the EU first announced that in exchange for a bailout, the PIGS would need to agree to stringent spending cuts and higher taxes. My hesitation stems from a similar debt crisis I experienced in Latin America during the 1980s.

At that time, it was the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was calling the shots. The same deal was foisted on countries throughout Latin America. All that effort accomplished was massive unemployment, a rapid decline in economic activity and a whole bunch of socialist revolutions from one end of the continent to the other. We called that period the "Lost Decade."

In the end, when the problem threatened to topple some of our own banks, we did what had to be done. We swapped debt for equity at 10 cents on the dollar. We also forgave a lot more debt than we swapped and, as a result, we have the Latin America we have today—dynamic, entrepreneurial and growing far faster than most regions. God forbid, that today's brilliant economists and politicians learn a lesson from the Lost Decade!

As for the rest of these worries, I'll handle them in order: the end of QE II at the end of June will be a nonevent. The Fed has our back and will continue to have it. Europe's woes will be contained, most likely by allowing some countries to re-negotiate their debt along the lines I have suggested. The "DD" (double dip) won’t happen this year and inflation expectations will begin to decline as investors realize the peak in the commodity bubble has come and gone.

So that leaves a market that is down less than 5 percent from its highs. Recall that I expected a pullback into the 1,300 to 1,325 range on the S&P 500 Index. Well, we dropped to 1,311 this week and in my opinion we are scraping along the bottom. So quit worrying.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.



Tags: QEII, debt, Europe      
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Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of BMM. None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill’s insights.

 

 

 



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