The fall holidays are quickly approaching, and almost every family has at least one black-sheep member among the bunch. You know, the unemployed second cousin who shows up for Thanksgiving dinner intoxicated – who then proceeds to pull you aside after a full meal to ask you for some money because of an unlucky trip to Las Vegas. For simplicity purposes, let’s name our deadbeat cousin Joe.
Right now the European union (NYSE:EU) is dealing with a similar situation, but rather than being forced to deal with money-begging cousin named Joe, the EU is being forced to confront the irresponsible debt-binging practices of its own relatives – the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). The European troika (International Monetary Fund/IMF; European Union/EU; and European Central Bank/ECB), spearheaded by German and French persuasion, is contemplating everything from prescribing direct bank recapitalization, bailouts via the leveraging of the EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility), ECB bond purchases, debt guarantees, unlimited central bank loans, and more.
New stress tests are being reevaluated as we speak. Previous tests failed in gaining the necessary credibility because inadequate haircuts were applied to the values of PIIGS debt held by European banks. European Leaders are beginning to gain some religion as to the urgency and intensity of the financial crisis. Just today, Germany’s chancellor (Angela Merkel) and France’s President (Nicolas Sarkozy) announced that they will introduce a comprehensive package of measures to stabilize the eurozone by the end of this month, right before the summit of the G20 leading global economies in Cannes, France.
Pick Your Poison
Whatever the path used to mop up debt excesses, the options for solving the financial mess can be lumped together in the following categories:
1. Austerity: Plain, unadulterated spending cuts is one prescription being administerd in hopes of curing bloated European sovereign debt issues. Negatives: Slowing economic growth, slowing tax receipts, potentially widening deficits (reference Greece), and political reelection self interests call into question the feasibility of the austerity option. Positives: Austerity is a morally correct fiscal response, which has the potential of placing a country’s financial situation back on a sustainable path.
2. Bailouts: The troika is also talking about infusing the troubled banks with new capital. Negatives: This action could result in more debt placed on country balance sheets, a potentially lower credit rating, higher costs of borrowing, higher tax burden for blameless taxpayers, and often an impossible political path of success. Positives: Financial markets may respond constructively in the short-run, but providing an alcoholic more alcohol doesn’t solve long-term fiscal responsibility, and also introduces the problem of moral hazard.
3. Haircuts: Voluntary or involuntary haircuts to principal debt obligations may occur in conjunction with previously described bailout efforts, depending on the severity of debt levels. Negatives: There are many different sets of constituents and investors, which can make voluntary haircut/debt restructuring terms difficult to agree upon. If the haircuts are too severe, banking reserves across the EU will become decimated, which will only lead to more austerity, bailouts, and potential credit downgrades. Such actions could hamper or eliminated future access to capital, and the cost of access to future capital could be cost prohibitive for the borrowing countries that defaulted/restructured. Positives: Haircuts eliminate or lessen the need for other more painful austerity or restructuring measures, and force borrowers to become more fiscally responsible, not to mention, investors are forced to conduct more thorough due diligence.
4. Printing Press: Buying back debt with freshly printed euros hot off the press is another strategy. Negatives: Inflation is an invisible tax on everyone, including those constituents who are behaving in a fiscally responsible manner. Positives: Not only is this strategy more politically palatable because the inflation tax is spread across the whole union, but this path to debt reduction also does not require as painful and unpopular cuts in spending as experienced in other options.
What is the cost for this massive European debt-binging rehabilitation? Estimates vary widely, but a JP Morgan analyst sized it up this way as explained in the The Financial Times:
“In a worst-case, severe recession scenario, €230bn in new capital is needed to meet Basel III requirements, assuming a 60 per cent debt writedown on Greece, 40 per cent on Ireland and Portugal and 20 per cent on Italy and Spain, and that banks withhold dividends.”
More bearish estimates with larger bond loss haircuts, stricter regulatory guidelines, and harsher austerity measures have generated recapitalization numbers north of €1 trillion euros. Regardless of the estimates, European governments, regulators, and central banks are likely to select a combination of the poisons listed above. There is no silver bullet solution, and any of the chosen paths come with their own unique set of consequences.
As time passes and the European crisis matures, I am confident that you will be hearing more about ECB involvement and the firing-up of the printing presses. Perhaps the ECB will fund and work jointly with the EFSF to soak up debt and/or capitalize weak banks. Alternatively, and more simply, the ECB is likely to follow the path of the U.S. and implement significant amounts of quantitative easing (i.e., provide liquidity to the financial system via sovereign debt purchases and guarantees).
Dealing with irresponsible and intoxicated deadbeat second cousins (or European countries) fishing for money is never a pleasurable experience. There are many ways to address the problem, but ignoring the issue will only make the situation worse. Fortunately, our European friends on the other side of the pond appear to be taking notice. As in the U.S., if government officials delay or ignore the immediate problems, the financial market cops (a.k.a., “bond vigilantes”) will force them into action. In the recent past, European officials have used a strategy of sober talking “tough love,” but signs that the ECB printing presses are now beginning to warm up are evident. Once the euros come flying off the presses to detoxify the debt binging banks, perhaps the ECB can print a few extra euros for my cousin Joe.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in JPM, or any other security referenced in this article.
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