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@theMarket: Greece — How To Default Without Defaulting

Bill Schmick

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.

Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: Greece, PIGS, bailout, Europe      

Independent Investor: Time Is Running Out For The Presidential Cycle

Bill Schmick

Here we are in the middle of June, in the third year of a presidential cycle, and no one is talking of its historical bullish implications. Despite all the present gloom and doom about the economy and the stock market, here's something to remember. There has never been a negative return in the stock market during the third year of any president's four-year term since 1939.

Sure, there could always be a first time. And if you look at the historical data and compare it to this cycle, you can understand why. Usually, the year immediately following a president's election is negative. Barak Obama's first year, however, was extremely positive. The stock market lows were put in March of that year and the S&P 500 Index gained 23.5 percent in 2009 and then another 12.8 percent last year.

Right now, all three stock market averages are roughly flat for the year after climbing as high as 8.9 percent earlier in the year. Most pundits believe we still have more downside ahead of us. How much is the question. Some strategists believe we are closer to a bottom than a top; me included. Of course, we could technically have an up year by simply gaining 1 or 2 percent from here. Yet, only once in the last 72 years has the S&P 500 closed more than 10 percent below its previous end-of-year close during a president's third year in office. On the other hand, the index has gained over 10 percent (or more) at least once during the third year on 15 out of the last 17 occurrences. We have yet to do that.

There is a political rhythm to this cycle that makes a good deal of economic sense. Initially, when a new president is elected, he makes the hard choices and absorbs any negative fallout in the economy in his first and second years. Raising taxes or cutting spending are simply two examples of a new administration "biting the bullet" early on. By year three, re-election considerations come to the forefront.

The state of the economy is usually a major determinant on who will be elected and what party will dominate the political arena. This election cycle it is already clear that the economy will be the major factor in next year's presidential election. Traditionally, the sitting president will do everything in his power (whether a lame duck or not) to insure that his party garners the most votes possible.

The problem this time around is that the Obama administration has already done everything in its power to both stimulate the economy and get people working again. The Federal Reserve Bank and its board, which is ostensibly above politics but in reality owes their positions to the sitting administration, is already doing all they can to stimulate the economy. Tactics such as reducing interest rates and other "easy money" policies are already in place and have been for two years.

I have often said that when things look the darkest, that's usually the time to pay attention to the facts and not get sucked down into an emotional morass. Although the presidential cycle is not, nor will ever be, the determining factor in whether this market finishes the year with a loss or a gain, I believe it is simply another arrow in my quiver when I say that good times lie ahead for the market and the economy this year.

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.

Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: president, markets, historical      

The Independent Investor: Another Round of Layoffs Looming

Bill Schmick

Last week's uninspiring gain in employment disappointed Wall Street and sent the markets into the doldrums. As July approaches and the start of most state and local government's new fiscal year begins, expect a lot of pink slips in the mail.

Unfortunately, the continued slow economy and the end of federally-sponsored stimulus programs are delivering a one-two punch to most state budgets. Since states are required to balance their budgets each year, cutting spending is a necessity. Most economists are forecasting at least a loss of 110,000 jobs in local government sectors in the third quarter.

Negotiations with state employee unions have been largely one sided. Either the unions accept large wage and benefit concessions or the axe will fall. Most unions are digging in their feet, arguing that there are other areas of the budget more deserving of cuts or that taxes should be raised on those best able to afford it in order to balance budgets. Their arguments are falling on deaf ears.

In Hartford, Conn., for example, Gov. Daniel Malloy has given the unions a choice of massive layoffs or $1.6 billion in concessions. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is demanding $450 million in give backs or unions should prepare for 9,800 state employee layoffs. Vermont's state unions, on the other hand, have decided to pre-empt the layoff threat by agreeing to take furloughs amounting to 40 hours a week over the next year. Massachusetts is still negotiating its budget but you can bet legislators will be going down the same road as neighboring states.

At the same time, tax revenues, although rising, are still anemic at best. In states such as New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, where a large slug of tax revenues is dependent on Wall Street jobs and bonuses, the news is less than positive.

Banks and brokers are considering a new round of layoffs. Some banks are already laying off, like First Niagara Financial Group in Connecticut. Morgan Stanley said it will be reducing headcount while Wells Fargo and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch have been shutting offices across the country. Others are planning the same thing.

The entire banking sector continues to struggle with the de-leveraging process of bad loans, foreclosures, new regulations and volatile financial markets. Stock markets are not what they used to be, nor are the IPO markets. Readers are probably aware that volume on the exchanges has plummeted, despite an 80 percent rebound in the averages.

The disappearance of retail investors after the financial crash, the advent of exchange traded funds, which are quickly replacing individual equities as the investment of choice, and the massive increase in electronic trading have conspired to gut the profitability of what was once a huge profit center for the financial community.

When you combine the state and local layoffs and new layoffs in the private sector, the total will make further gains in employment problematic in the short term. It may very well take until next year before we see unemployment fall by much more than a half percent.

It isn't the end of the world, unless of course you are one of the unemployed or soon to be. The plus side of the layoffs and other spending cuts that will shortly confront us is that it will put our local and state governments on a firmer financial footing. That is extremely important down the road since municipalities will need to continue to borrow money through bond offerings in the municipal markets. Without balancing budgets, that would become extremely difficult. It appears to me that layoffs, no matter how painful, are better than bankruptcy. 

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.

Write a comment - 1 Comment       Tags: layoffs, budgets, unions      

@theMarket: Jobs Versus the Market

Bill Schmick

The May non-farm payroll jobs report was a disappointment. So much so that investors dumped stocks, convinced that because the country only added 54,000 jobs, the economy is kaput and we all headed for economic Armageddon. Now, doesn't that sound silly?

Let's get real folks. We didn't lose 300,000 jobs last month, which might have justified Friday morning's sell-off. Sure, economists were looking for a job gain of 100,000 plus but why should any one be surprised that unemployment is still above 9 percent given the slow growth rate of our economy?

Since the end of the recession, quarterly GDP has been at best erratic. Beginning with the third quarter of 2009, we have experienced the following string of quarterly numbers: 1.6, 5.0, 3.7, 1.7, 2.6, 3.1, 1.8 percent. All but one of those quarters have trended well below the normal economic recovery rates associated with the end of a recession. Is it any wonder that our unemployment rate bounces around while remaining inordinately high?

The spate of negative economic numbers we have been experiencing of late, in my opinion, has much more to do with the body blow Japan has taken from its earthquake and aftermath. After all, Japan is the second largest economy in the world and the fallout from its present recession impacts everyone.

As for the markets, I believe there are similarities between the April-August period of last year and what is happening today. At that time investors were concerned that we were falling back into a double dip recession. GDP for the second quarter of 2010 had dropped to 1.7 percent from 3.7 percent, while unemployment hovered at 10 percent.

The S&P 500 Index fell by over 16 percent. It was only after the Federal Reserve Bank announced the possibility of QE II that the markets recovered in August. Now the S&P is almost 300 points higher.

Last quarter's GDP growth rate was 1.8 percent down from 3.1 percent the quarter before and unemployment is 9.1 percent, up a smidgeon from last month. Unlike last year, however, we face the "end" of QE II in less than 30 days.

Readers may recall that I discounted a double-dip recession last year. I argued that we were in a slow growth recovery and should expect erratic and conflicting economic data into the foreseeable future. As long as the housing market remains in the doldrums, so will the economy. That argument still holds. At the same time, if the economy slows further, the Fed still has our back no matter how many QEs it takes.

What investors tend to forget is that we narrowly escaped a second worldwide Depression two years ago. While politicians, investors and taxpayers alike speechify about our government's huge deficit and wasteful spending, they should stop and ask why the deficit and spending is where it is today.

As a result of the financial crisis, the deleveraging of debt in the private sector was an absolute necessity. The only way to accomplish that, without driving the world over the brink, was for the government to take on that debt (deliberately leveraging the public sector balance sheet) while, at the same time, spending as much as possible to jump start the economy.

To date, that strategy has worked, although not as perfectly as certain textbook economists might have hoped. We have averted a Depression although this last Great Recession is not like any of the recessions we have experienced since the end of WW II. It is going to take time, effort and patience to unwind the financial tangle that our banks, brokers and insurance companies have created. We are on the right track, even if our path ahead is dimly lit. Expect the track to run through peaks and valleys, make sharp turns, and accelerate at times, while coasting at others. In the meantime, stay the course.

As I write this, the markets are wrestling with 1,300 on the S&P 500 Index, the bottom end of my projected range. Could the markets fall even further? Of course, they can. If we break 1,300, the next stop would be 1,250-1,275, still not the end of the world. From top to bottom that would be an 8 percent correction, after a 300-point rally over 11 months. I'll gladly accept that kind of pullback for a chance to rally up to 1,400 or above.

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.

Write a comment - 0 Comments       Tags: jobs, unemployment, economy      

The Independent Investor: Japan — The Sun Is Beginning to Rise

Bill Schmick

Readers should know by now that I'm a contrarian. The worse things seem to get, the more interested I become. Take Japan for example.

This island nation has suffered one economic bad spell after another for over 20 years. Japan is a depressing tale of economic and political mismanagement that has resulted in years of negative interest rates, a huge budget deficit, a stagnant economy, moribund stock market and a disillusioned and aging population. The massive earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear disaster at a nuclear power plant in the eastern part of the country was seemingly the last straw that broke this country's back.

Japan is now officially in recession, which started in the last quarter of 2010, and has both widened and deepened thanks to these calamities of nature. Faced with enormous rebuilding costs, any effort to rein in the government's huge deficit looks hopeless. As a result, last week Moody's Investors Services placed Japan's government debt on review for a possible downgrade after changing its view in February from "stable" to "negative."

So why am I interested in investing in a country faced with this unending list of woes?

After two decades of lackluster efforts to revive the domestic economy, a new approach has been forced on the nation's leaders, thanks to the earthquake and tsunami. An enormous re-building of parts of the economy has to be undertaken, similar to the kind of reconstruction Japan undertook after World War II. Experts estimate it will cost $200 billion to $300 billion.

Japanese corporations need to increase their capital expenditures in order to regain lost capacity as well as to invest in improving their supply chain operations against a repeat of this kind of disaster. In addition, they will spend more money on earthquake proofing existing factories and office buildings and acquiring alternate power sources. This could add another $150 billion to $200 billion to national spending.

Aside from all the spending that is beginning in the near future, the government will maintain its extremely loose monetary policy. Interest rates will remain at 0 percent for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the yen is expected to decline as investors shy away from bonds that are rated "negative" by Moody's and an economy that is in recession.

To my way of thinking, here is an economy that is on the eve of a massive stimulus program, a declining currency (good for increasing exports), a corporate sector hell-bent on increasing capacity and re-gaining global market share (think autos) and a population that is willing to finance the effort regardless of Moody's outlook on their bonds. In the eastern region, new housing (unlike the U.S.) is in great demand. And unlike our own financial institutions that refuse to lend despite low interest rates, Japan's banks will lend and lend to corporations and individuals in order to help the recovery effort.

What this indicates to me is that a V-shaped economic recovery in Japan is a strong possibility. If I'm right, the stock market is a screaming buy.

Over the longer term this particular set of economic variables may actually pull the country out of its decadeslong deflationary quagmire. Japan as a nation needs to spend again, build again and buy again. Up until now, there hasn't been the will or a really compelling reason to do so. Now, whether you call it divine intervention or simply the flip side of a bad set of circumstances, Japan has its mojo back. It may take a few years before all of the above unfolds, but I think we are on the cusp of dramatic change within this country. Remember, you heard it here first, folks.

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.

Write a comment - 1 Comment       Tags: Japan, tsunami, recession      
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