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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.
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