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Eurozone Debt Crisis: Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Interest-Rates / Eurozone Debt Crisis Mar 13, 2012 - 01:38 PM GMT

By: Axel_Merk

Interest-Rates

Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleWhen Greece's woes first rattled the markets two years ago, the pundits predicted a collapse of the euro.

The resilience of the euro has been due to a number of factors, not least of which is that the eurozone as a whole has a broadly balanced current account. As such, a misbehaving bond market doesn't necessarily cause a plunge in the currency, as foreign buyers are not required to fund a deficit or protect against currency weakness.


The euro has also been on the other side of the Bernanke trade: the Fed's printing of trillions of dollars is a deliberate effort to weaken the US dollar in an attempt to promote economic growth. Conversely, with the European Central Bank showing more restraint, the euro has been stronger, yet that strength has exposed a host of problems.

A similar pattern was evident during the Great Depression, where those countries holding on to the gold standard longer had stronger currencies, but suffered painful fiscal and political consequences of trying to do the right thing.

The focus should be on making the financial system strong enough to stomach potential sovereign defaults. And, as no one else has been able or willing to step up to the plate, the ECB has been forced to take on the task.

By charging only 1 per cent on unlimited 3-year loans, the ECB is allowing banks to reap substantial profits by buying higher yielding securities. This can be extremely profitable. In the US, the Fed brags about handing over $80bn in profit to the Treasury, neglecting to state the fact that the more money a central bank prints, the more securities it can buy and, thus, the greater the interest it earns. The ECB, though, "splits the coupon" with the banking sector, boosting their profitability.

For now, policymakers hope the ECB's elixir will continue to soothe the markets, but the fear of contagion is still a big concern. With Greece temporarily patched up, the focus may shift again to Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Policymakers in emerging markets have cause for concern, too, as European banks have been a key source of funding for these markets. Emerging market funding is often provided in US dollars, stoking contagion concerns for US markets. Prime US money market funds were all too willing to buy US dollar-denominated commercial paper issued by European banks.

Indeed, central bankers have ramped up their efforts, seemingly planning for the worst. The Fed introduced a currency swap line to alleviate US dollar funding concerns in Europe. The ECB conducted its 3-year long-term refinancing operations (LTROs). The Bank of England provided another dose of quantitative easing. The Bank of Japan pursues its newly anointed inflation target. These are all variations of printing money.

With all major countries printing money, the problems in the eurozone may ease for now. Add to that the large degree of short positions previously built up in the euro that still need to be wound down, and the single currency should do just fine for the time being.

There's a price to be paid, though: we don't see how the ECB, in three years' time, will be able to mop up the trillion-euro liquidity it has provided. The ECB has now introduced a structural rigidity into its monetary policy, akin to what the Fed is faced with. In many respects, central banks have disrupted the natural transition of market-ascribed economic health by imposing their colossal might (balance sheets) onto the markets. This should be alarming. Central bankers are increasingly manipulating rates all along the yield curve.

Such policies take away crucial economic gauges (market-based interest rates across the yield curve) from investors and policymakers. As result, policymakers can no longer rely on these metrics in setting appropriate monetary policy.

Politicians, too, no longer get market feedback to encourage reform. Spain has already indicated it will further soften its budget goals. Yet, without the ECB's liquidity provisions, the bond market might have responded with its own "encouragement" to run less of a deficit, by selling Spanish debt.

This is not just a European problem. Look at the proposed 2013 US Budget and it becomes clear that, without the encouragement of the bond market, policymakers may have little incentive to pursue fiscally sustainable policies. With its significant current account deficit, the US dollar may be much more vulnerable than the euro should US bond markets act up.

In the meantime, Greece is experimenting with a carrot and stick assortment of incentives. That approach may be doomed to failure as each time a target is missed the ire will be directed at creditors, most notably Germany. To move beyond planning for the worst, Greece and others must learn to own their own problems rather than rely on central banks and other people's money.

Please register for our upcoming Webinar on Tuesday, March 13, or sign up for our newsletter to be informed as we discuss global dynamics and their impact on currencies.We manage the Merk Funds, including the Merk Hard Currency Fund. To learn more about the Funds, please visit www.merkfunds.com.

By Axel Merk

Manager of the Merk Hard, Asian and Absolute Return Currency Funds, www.merkfunds.com

Axel Merk, President & CIO of Merk Investments, LLC, is an expert on hard money, macro trends and international investing. He is considered an authority on currencies. Axel Merk wrote the book on Sustainable Wealth; order your copy today.

The Merk Absolute Return Currency Fund seeks to generate positive absolute returns by investing in currencies. The Fund is a pure-play on currencies, aiming to profit regardless of the direction of the U.S. dollar or traditional asset classes.

The Merk Asian Currency Fund seeks to profit from a rise in Asian currencies versus the U.S. dollar. The Fund typically invests in a basket of Asian currencies that may include, but are not limited to, the currencies of China, Hong Kong, Japan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

The Merk Hard Currency Fund seeks to profit from a rise in hard currencies versus the U.S. dollar. Hard currencies are currencies backed by sound monetary policy; sound monetary policy focuses on price stability.

The Funds may be appropriate for you if you are pursuing a long-term goal with a currency component to your portfolio; are willing to tolerate the risks associated with investments in foreign currencies; or are looking for a way to potentially mitigate downside risk in or profit from a secular bear market. For more information on the Funds and to download a prospectus, please visit www.merkfunds.com.

Investors should consider the investment objectives, risks and charges and expenses of the Merk Funds carefully before investing. This and other information is in the prospectus, a copy of which may be obtained by visiting the Funds' website at www.merkfunds.com or calling 866-MERK FUND. Please read the prospectus carefully before you invest.

The Funds primarily invest in foreign currencies and as such, changes in currency exchange rates will affect the value of what the Funds own and the price of the Funds' shares. Investing in foreign instruments bears a greater risk than investing in domestic instruments for reasons such as volatility of currency exchange rates and, in some cases, limited geographic focus, political and economic instability, and relatively illiquid markets. The Funds are subject to interest rate risk which is the risk that debt securities in the Funds' portfolio will decline in value because of increases in market interest rates. The Funds may also invest in derivative securities which can be volatile and involve various types and degrees of risk. As a non-diversified fund, the Merk Hard Currency Fund will be subject to more investment risk and potential for volatility than a diversified fund because its portfolio may, at times, focus on a limited number of issuers. For a more complete discussion of these and other Fund risks please refer to the Funds' prospectuses.

This report was prepared by Merk Investments LLC, and reflects the current opinion of the authors. It is based upon sources and data believed to be accurate and reliable. Opinions and forward-looking statements expressed are subject to change without notice. This information does not constitute investment advice. Foreside Fund Services, LLC, distributor.

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