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Don’t worry about the Greek debt crisis

That was the clear stance of James Bullard, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, last week in London. His major message was sovereign debt crises occur frequently, but in my opinion his strongest statement is on the resilience of the US economy so far:

“In all, the economic situation in the US and globally is not very different from median forecasts made at the depth of the recession in late 2008 and early 2009. Since that time there have been several moments when it may have appeared that the global economic recovery would be derailed, but, as it turned out, the recovery has remained on track…”

Bullard argues that contagion effects have become less likely thanks to “too-big-to-fail” policies

“Governments have made it very clear over the course of the last two years that they will not allow major financial institutions to fail outright at this juncture. Because these too-big-to-fail guarantees are in place, the contagion effects are much less likely to occur. “Too big to fail” is a controversial policy, but it does have its upside in the current situation.”

Bullard also points to the Russian default crisis of 1998 as recent evidence of a large sovereign debt crisis that failed to rattle the global economy.

Bullard goes farther, saying a European debt default or restructuring could benefit America.

“The U.S. may actually be an unwitting beneficiary of the crisis in Europe, much as it was during the Asian currency crisis of the late 1990s. This is because of the flight to safety effect that pushes yields lower in the U.S.”

A closer analysis is here:

“When the Asian economies shuddered and currencies nearly collapsed in 1998, many economists predicted the tremors would take down the United States and European economies. Quite the opposite occurred. A stream of money flowed from Asian banks into United States Treasury bonds, and interest rates fell as a result. Oil prices also dropped. And the United States emerged stronger…

There is suggestive evidence that this could happen again. American interest rates have fallen in recent days, as investors apparently seek refuge in Treasury bonds. And talk of a slowdown has caused the price of oil to fall, which helps the American consumer.”

One concern is if the American economy benefits from a foreign debt crisis, it can conceal the growth of market bubbles or mask underlying problems. For instance,

“It could be argued that the infusion of cash in 1998 further inflated the Internet stock bubble, which popped several years later with disastrous consequences.”

Worry about the Crisis

After years of vast research, Professor Kenneth Rogoff, of Harvard University, and Carmen Reinhart, of the University of Maryland, published the formative academic work on debt crises in 2008. Besides impeccable timing and a sarcastic title, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly offers wise insight into the patterns of debt crises as we try to prophecy the global economy’s future.

The first historical phenomenon we must understand about debt crises is that they are bunched in temporal and regional clusters. These often correspond to the boom-bust cycles of international capital flows. Here is a series of default clusters and debt restructurings in Europe over the last two centuries. Notice the dates of 1915, 1932, and 1981.

Austria 1868 1914 1932

Bulgaria 1915 1932

Greece 1824 1893

Germany 1932

Hungary 1931

Italy 1940

Moldova 2002

Poland 1936 1981

Portugal 1834 1892

Romania 1915 1933 1981

Russia 1917 1998



1895 1933 1983

Spain 1831 1867,


Turkey 1876 1915 1940 1978

Ukraine 1998

Another phenomenon to recognize is the relationship between public debt, which often lead to debt loads, defaults, and restructuring. For instance:


This graph is excellent. And seriously worrying. As I’m sure you are aware, public debt is rising everywhere, here is an excellent series of graphs on the world’s major economies. The highlights are:

“Greece, which is expected to have a debt that is 120% of its Gross Domestic Product this year, but isn’t likely to see any surge in growth that might help it cut this debt…

Debt ratios will rise throughout Europe this year and next, analysts say, as a weak recovery drains government tax revenues while spending on unemployment and other benefits remains high. Spain, for example, which entered the crisis with a debt-to-GDP ratio below 40%, is expected to hit 66% this year and 74% by the end of 2011. The problem extends beyond Continental Europe. The U.S., U.K. and Japan all have debt that is 90% of GDP, or are expected to soon reach that level…”

So unless the current crisis is an anomaly able to avoid historical patterns, another financial panic is heading our way.  Additionally, if debt is a high rate of GDP for many of the Western traditional powers…

“…some worry that global investors will prove less likely to lend money to those powers, sending interest rates climbing, perhaps undermining the stock markets and economies of those nations.”

In short, the rescuers of Greece are arriving in leaky boats. Unlike in nations with their own currency, poorer nations stuck with the European single currency can’t print money to help ease their debts. Professor Rogoff’s conclusions aren’t pretty but are certainly useful,

“We’re going to be raising taxes sky high,” he said. “The federal tax take probably needs to go up by about 20%.” He thinks the top marginal rate, when you include Social Security and Medicare taxes, will hit 50%…

…we’re probably going to see a lot of inflation, eventually. We will have to. It’s the easiest way to reduce the value of those liabilities in real terms. “The way rich countries default is through inflation,” he said…

…the history of past crises suggests that the job market probably won’t start getting better till the middle of next year, and that house prices may stay flat “for a long time, many, many years,” Prof. Rogoff said…”

So, in a nutshell, the most frequently cited outcome from the Greek debt crisis, and the public and private global debt crisis is more inflation.   This environment generally, at least in the short term, forces down equity valuations, while inflation forces interest rates higher.

This was our investment consensus for WealthVest Marketing.   A secular bear market in bonds and a secular bear market in stocks.   A sustained period of higher interest rates and falling equity market multiples.   In short, a perfect storm for fixed index annuities, and a renewed American focus on savings and privatizing pensions.