A Five-Step Guide to Contagion
Why European debt matters to the United States.
Times are tough and those struggling to make ends meet have focused their efforts close to home.
That’s a natural instinct but it doesn’t change the fact that problems on the other side of the world affect us all. To fully understand the depth and complexity of our current conundrum, we must appreciate how we got here.
It is widely accepted that grieving arrives in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. If we apply that psychological continuum to the financial market construct, it offers a valuable lens with which to view this evolving crisis.
In April 2007, policymakers assured an unsuspecting public that housing and sub-prime mortgage concerns were “well contained.” Minyanville took the other side of that trade and argued that the nascent contagion extended all the way around the world. (Read more in Well Contained?)
In August 2007, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average traded near an all-time high, Canadian officials told investors it would “provide liquidity to support the stability of the Canadian financial system and the continued functioning of the financial markets” before systemic contagion ensued. (See also The Credit Card)
In March 2008, Alan Schwartz, CEO of Bear Stearns appeared on CNBC to assuage concerns that his firm was facing a liquidity crisis. “Some people could speculate that Bear Stearns might have some problems since we’re a significant player in the mortgage business,” he said, “None of those speculations are true.”
On January 28 of this year, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou offered that Greece was being victimized by rumors in the financial markets and denied seeking aid from European partners to finance the country’s budget deficit, according to Bloomberg. As we know, European issues are now staking claim as the next phase of the financial crisis.
Two of my Ten Themes for 2010 are relevant to this discussion. The first is the “tricky trifecta,” or the migration from societal acrimony to social unrest to geopolitical conflict. Populist uprising, the rejection of wealth, and an emerging class war are symptomatic of this dynamic, as is the unfortunate fact economic hardship traditionally serves as a precursor to war.
The other theme is the notion of “European Disunion,” as I wrote in early January:
The European Union is committed to the regional and economic integration of 27 member states, with sixteen countries sharing a common currency. That was a fine idea when it was first founded but the economic fallout of the financial crisis will put loyalties to the test.
Look for the Union to adopt more stringent guidelines in the coming year, including but not limited to distancing itself from the weaker links such as Greece and Ireland. Sovereign defaults, as a whole, should jockey for mind-share. This could conceivably spark a rally in the US Dollar, which could have ominous implications for the crowded carry trade.
European discontent continues to simmer with labor strikes and social strife as efforts are made to map an amenable plan before €20 billion ($28 billion) in Greek debt comes due in April and May. While that amount is far smaller than what financial firms faced in September 2008, the dynamic is earily reminiscent. (Read also Pirate’s Booty)
By the time it was evident sub-prime mortgage woes weren’t contained, the damage already occurred. Our government reactively responded to the crisis by consuming the cancer in an attempt to stave off a car crash. (See also Shock & Awe)
As the European Union and International Monetary Fund wrestle with how to address the sovereign mess, our financial fate can be drilled down to one very simple question: Will we see contagion, as we did with Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE), AIG (AIG), Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, or will the current congestion be contained in the context of an evolving globalization?
The bulls will offer that corrections must feel sinister if they're to be truly effective. They’re right, of course, but I will remind you of a salient point made by Professor Peter Atwater on Minyanville. If sovereign lifeguards saved corporations when the financial crisis first hit, who is left to save the lifeguards?
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen significant widening in overseas credit spreads, including Hong Kong, Switzerland, Indonesia, Malaysia, Portugal, and New Zealand. As markets are fluid and policy takes time, the lag must be factored into the fragile equation, particularly as the European Union is structurally interlinked.
We can talk about how the capital market construct forever changed, how our constitutional rights have been challenged or how the lifestyles of the rich conflict with the struggle to exist. While those dynamics remain in play, they miss an entirely more relevant point for purposes of this discussion. (See The Declaration of Interdependence)
Social mood and risk appetites shape financial markets. One of the greatest misperceptions of all time was that The Crash caused The Great Depression when The Great Depression actually caused The Crash.
It’s been a full year since Minyanville fingered Eastern Europe as a modern day incarnation of a sub-prime borrower. The question is therefore begged, what if Greece is Fannie Mae, Portugal is Freddie Mac, Spain is AIG, Argentina is Wachovia Bank, and Ireland is Lehman Brothers? (Also read Eastern Europe, Subprime Borrower)
Contagion, by definition, arrives in phases and we must remember that Greece is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Regardless of what IMF or Euro Zone "cross border solution" we see, it'll simply buy time, much like the bearded nationalization of Fannie and Freddie pushed risk out on the time continuum.
Given the trending direction of social mood and the discounting mechanism that is the market, the perception that defines our financial reality must remain front and center in the mainstream mindset.
In September 2008, we offered that the government invented fingers to plug the multitude of holes that sprang open in the financial dike. That imagery would again apply if there were viable fingers attached to a healthy and able arm.
While many dismiss the notion that Greece or Portugal “matter” in the global financial construct, I’ll explain why they might. Concerns in the Euro Zone could manifest through a “flight to quality” in the US Dollar, as it has to the tune of 8% in the dollar index (DXY) since the December low.
Those hoping for a stronger greenback should be careful for what they wish, much like the "lower crude will be equity positive" crowd learned in 2008. In an “asset class deflation vs. dollar devaluation” environment, a weak currency is a necessary precursor to -- but no guarantor of -- higher asset class prices. (Se Hyperinflation vs. Deflation)
The hedge fund community currently has the carry trade on in size. If the greenback continues to strengthen, the specter of an unwind increases in kind. Should that occur, asset class positions financed with borrowed dollars would come for sale across the board.
The point of recognition will eventually arrive that our debt issues are cumulative; when that happens, the contagion will no longer be contained. In the meantime, as we edge from here to there, be on the lookout for the unintended consequences of European austerity initiatives, including but not limited to social unrest and the abatement of risk appetites.
Risk management over reward chasing as we together find our way.
Todd Harrison is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Minyanville. Prior to his current role, Mr. Harrison was President and head trader at a $400 million dollar New York-based hedge fund. Todd welcomes your comments and/or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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