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@theMarket: One Down, One to Go

Bill Schmick

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      

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