I never thought my daily routine would be dominated by checking European markets before our domestic open, but these days it is appearing like the European tail is wagging the global dog. Tracking Spanish bond yields from the Tesoro Publico and the Italia Borsa index is currently having a larger bearing on my portfolio than U.S. fundamentals. When explaining short term performance to others, I feel a little like an elementary school student making an excuse that my dog ate my homework.
Although the multi-year European saga has gone on for years, this too shall pass. What’s more, despite the bailouts of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece in recent years, the resilient U.S. economy has recorded 11 consecutive quarters of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth and added more than 4 million jobs, albeit at a less than desirable pace.
Could it get worse? Certainly. Will it get worse before it gets better? Probably. Is worsening European fundamentals and a potential Greek eurozone exit already factored into current stock prices? Possibly. The truth of the matter is that nobody knows the answers to these questions with certainty. At this point, the probability of an unknown or unexpected event in a different geography is more likely to be the cause of our economic downfall than a worsening European crisis. As sage investor and strategist Don Hays aptly points out, “When everyone is concerned about a problem, that problem is solved.” That may be overstating the truth a bit, but I do believe the issues absent from current headlines are the matters we should be most concerned about.
The European financial crisis may drag on for a while longer, but nothing lasts forever. Years from now, worries about the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) will switch to others, like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or other worry geography du jour. The issues of greatest damage in 2008-2009, like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, CDS (credit default swaps), and subprime mortgages, didn’t dominate the headlines for years like the European crisis stories of today. As compared to Europe’s problems, these prior pains felt like Band Aids being quickly ripped off.
Eventually European worries will be put on the backburner, but until some other boogeyman dominates the daily headlines, our financial markets will continue to correlate tightly with European security prices. How does one fight these tight correlations? For starters, the correlations will not stay tight forever. If an investor can survive through the valley of strong security association, then the benefits will eventually accrue.
Although the benefits from diversification may disappear in the short-run, they should not be fully forgotten. Bonds, cash, and precious metals (i.e., gold) proved to be great portfolio diversifiers in 2008 and early 2009. Commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, and alternative investments, are a few asset classes that will help diversify portfolios. Risk is defined in many circles as volatility (i.e., standard deviation) and combining disparate asset classes can lower volatility. But risk, defined as the potential of experiencing permanent losses, can also be controlled by focusing on valuation. By in large, large cap dividend paying stocks have struggled for more than a decade, despite equity dividend yields for the S&P 500 exceeding 10-year Treasury yields (the first time in more than 50 years). Investing in large companies with strong balance sheets and attractive growth prospects is another strategy of lowering portfolio risk.
Politics & Winston Churchill
Some factors however are out of shareholders hands, such as politics. As we know from last year’s debt ceiling melee and credit downgrade debacle, getting things done in Washington is very challenging. If you think achieving consensus in one country is difficult, imagine what it’s like in herding 17 countries? That’s the facts of life we are dealing with in the eurozone right now.
Although I am optimistic something will eventually get done, I consider myself a frustrated optimist. I am frustrated because of the gridlock, but optimistic because these problems are not rocket science. Rather these challenges are concepts my first grade child could understand:
• Expenses are running higher than revenues. You must cut expenses, increase revenues, or a combination thereof.
• Adding debt can support growth, but can lead to inflation. Cutting debt can hinder growth, but leads to a more sustainable fiscal state of wellbeing.
Relieving all the excess global leverage is a long, tortuous process. We saw firsthand here in the U.S. what happened to the U.S. real estate market and associated financial institutions when irresponsible debt consumption took place. Fortunately, corporations and consumers adjusted their all-you-can-eat debt buffet habits by going on a diet. As a matter of fact, corporations today are holding records amounts of cash and debt service loads for consumers has been reduced to levels not seen in decades (see chart below). Unlike governments, luckily CEOs and individuals do not need Congressional approval to adapt to a world of reality – they can simply adjust spending habits.
Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)
Governments, on the other hand, generally do need legislative approval to adjust spending habits. Regrettably, cutting the benefits of your constituents is not a real popular political strategy for accumulating votes or brownie points. If you don’t believe me, see what voters are doing to their leaders in Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy is the latest European leader to be booted from office due to austerity backlash and economic frustration. No less than nine European leaders have been cast aside since the financial crisis began.
The fate for U.S. politicians is less clear as we enter into a heated presidential election over the next six months. We do however know how the mid-term Congressional elections fared for the incumbents…not all sunshine and roses. Until elections are completed, we are resigned to the continued mind-numbing political gridlock, with no tangible resolutions to the trillion dollar deficits and gargantuan debt load. Obviously, most citizens would prefer a forward looking strategic plan from politicians (rather than a reactive one), but there are no signs that this will happen anytime soon…in either party.
Realistically though, tough decisions made by politicians only occur during crises, and if this slow-motion train wreck continues along this same path, then at least we have something to look forward to – forced resolution. We are seeing this firsthand in Greece. The “bond vigilantes” (see Plumbers & Cops) and responsible parents (i.e., Germany) have given Greece two options:
1.) Fix your financial problems and receive assistance; or
2.) Leave the EU (return to the Drachma currency) and figure your problems out yourself.
Panic has a way of forcing action, and we are approaching that “when push comes to shove” moment very quickly. I believe the Europeans are currently taking a note from our strategic playbook, which basically is the spaghetti approach – throw lots of things up on the wall and see what sticks. Or as Winston Churchill stated, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
There is no question, the European sovereign debt issue is a complete mess, and there are no clear paths to a quick solution. Until voters force politicians into making tough unpopular decisions, or leaders come together with forward looking answers, the default position