A blockbuster draft report from the European Commission saw the light of day recently, thanks to some reporting from Bloomberg. It highlights an incredibly dangerous Catch-22 facing many sovereign nations — the “Snowball Scenario.”
Let me give you an example how this works …
Suppose country A’s economy goes into the tank. The government responds by borrowing boatloads of money and spending like mad on stimulus packages.
The markets allow it to go on for a while. But then investors start to get antsy about all the debt being added to the government’s balance sheet. So they start dumping its bonds, driving prices lower and rates higher. That, in turn, forces the country to implement austerity measures to get its debt and deficit under control.
Those moves send the economy BACK into the crapper! Government spending has to rise yet again to pay for things like unemployment insurance, new stimulus packages, and so on … at the same time tax revenues fall. That drives debts and deficits even higher.
The end game in this snowball scenario? A sovereign default!
And that’s not just a theory. In fact …
Snowballs Are Already Rolling Downhill in Spain, Greece, and Portugal
Spain is trying to slash its budget deficit from 11.2 percent to 9.3 percent in 2010 and 6 percent in 2011. Portugal wants to cut its deficit from 9.4 percent to 7.3 percent this year and 4.6 percent next year. They plan to do so by some combination of pension freezes, wage cuts, new taxes, and other measures.
But the European Commission, which is the executive arm of the European Union, says that probably won’t be enough. Its conclusion?
“While the newly announced measures are significant and the targets imply impressive budgetary consolidation, more measures are needed to meet those targets.”
|The EU has told Spain and Portugal to get their budgets back in shape.|
In plain English, the message is “Get even tougher! Crack down more! Slash spending! Raise taxes!”
But as the Commission admits, the governments it is counseling face “low GDP growth, poor competitiveness, stable or declining prices and wages and high real interest rates.” So it’s virtually impossible to avoid a “snowball effect on the government debt.”
Stay Cautious! Stay Safe!
Bond traders aren’t dumb. They can see this coming from a mile away. Yields on Spanish 2-year notes shot up recently, then eased a bit. But now they’re rallying yet again — hitting a new cycle high just this week.
Spanish borrowing costs have skyrocketed from 1.51 percent in March to 3.29 percent, the highest in 17 months! It now costs more on a relative basis for Spain to borrow than it does the euro-area’s main economy, Germany. And it’s the highest that the 10-year Spanish/German yield spread has been since 1999 — when the euro currency debuted.
Portugal is seeing costs rise, too. It’s paying 5.58 percent to borrow money for 10 years, up from 4.15 percent back in April.
Reports are surfacing that Spain may need a 250 billion euro ($307 billion) credit line from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and possibly the U.S. Treasury.
Naturally, policymakers are denying that anything is in the works. But what do you expect them to do? These guys said the same thing about Greece, claiming it wasn’t at risk of defaulting. Then they pushed through a $135 billion bailout!
|Use market rallies as selling opportunities.|
In short, this sovereign debt crisis is playing out just like the private credit market crisis did before. It comes in waves — with periodic sharp drops triggered by some event, then some kind of bailout that makes everybody breathe a temporary sigh of relief, and finally yet another plunge as another hole appears in the dike.
Don’t get suckered in by the short-term rallies. This sovereign debt crisis is nowhere near over, and that means you have to stay cautious and safe in your investments.
Consider using inverse ETFs to hedge risk, keeping positions small, and dumping stocks into sharp rallies if you’re lucky enough to get them.
Until next time,
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