When PIIGS Don’t Fly
Last week the Euro lost about 4% of its value overnight. European markets took a dive and the US markets followed. Call it the “bad luck” of the Irish. If you haven’t been following the saga of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) then it might be a good idea to pay attention – since it may be coming to a theater very close to you soon.
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A few months ago we all saw the videos of rioting in the streets of Athens as the Greek government came oh so close to defaulting on its debt. Of course, as a member of the European Union and a user of the Euro currency, the EU came to the rescue of Greece by printing lots of cash to bail out the country. The reason for the Greek tragedy was not real estate, but a corrupt and mismanaged bureaucracy, which took pride in overpaying civil servants and asking for little in return. As it turned out, the Greeks lied about their fiscal situation when they joined the Union. They were much more indebted than originally believed and when the economic crisis of 2008 hit, the water receded and it turns out THEY were the ones not wearing a bathing suit. Of course if you have followed foreign markets for any length of time, there was little doubt that this would happen sooner or later. Greece has never been a model of economic competency. Like it’s neighbor Turkey, Greece has always taken pride in its citizenry’s ability to evade taxes.
Well, that was then. The results of the bailouts by the EU and the IMF (which we are heavily involved with) was a restructuring of Greek debt and the implementation of austerity measures – the likes of which the Greeks had not experienced…well since the last time the country went “almost bankrupt”. Of course, markets worldwide plunged on the news and we had a full-fledged correction for a few months, one that we are only now recovering from. What better time then to spring the next crisis?
No Gold at the End of This Rainbow
The Irish are well known for their ability to see humor in any situation. An easygoing folk they are a fun bunch to be around. A couple of decades ago this fun bunch decided to get serious. Long the laughing stock of the European compact Ireland reinvented itself as a place friendly to business. They lowered tax rates, offered massive incentives to foreign companies to relocate to Ireland, joined the EU and printed lots of money to accomplish this feat. (Oops, there’s that damned printing press again). So was born the Celtic Tiger.
The Irish stock market boomed. Property prices in Dublin approached levels only seen in major world capitals. The population went on a buying binge and the real estate boom began. Old country farmhouses, those cold places that still relied on wood fireplaces for warmth, were being retrofitted with new HVAC systems and high speed Internet. Renovate it and they will come. And, they came in droves to rediscover the Emerald Isle. But, as quickly as they came, they also left when 2008 rolled around. Like the Greeks, the Irish found themselves in a bad place. But, while they did pay taxes, the money coming in was not enough to bailout the bad loans made by banks during the height of the real estate boom. When property values crashed, there was nowhere to turn. The Irish already held the title of Most Indebted-to-Foreigners status. And, since they don’t have a printing press anymore (like we do) they were looking at Greece Part II…and that’s no blarney as they found out this week.
Late in the week the Irish finally gave in and let the EU and IMF in the door to design another bailout plan. Let me tell you something, the Europeans are getting almost as good as us when it comes to printing money these days. I am sure the Irish, who have a history of dealing with hardships, will come through this crisis much like they have come through the previous ones. In fact, if I were to bet, I would bet that Ireland recovers well before Greece.
Well, Ireland and Greece are toast. That leaves us without one vowel and two consonants to go! The leftovers leave a poor acronym “PIS”…maybe we should change it to SIP just to sound less offensive.
Of the SIP nations, Portugal and Spain are the more likely candidates to need intervention. Both are suffering from massive real estate crashes. But, they are more fiscally sound then both Ireland and Greece. Portugal is small, which is a concern. Spain and Italy have much more in the way of resources and assets to weather a storm. It will be interesting to see, but I am putting my proverbial bet on the Portuguese…too bad they don’t own Brazil anymore. Now that’s an asset that’s appreciating!
Is there a lesson to be learned from all of this? Yes. What happens in Europe will happen in the United States if we don’t get serious about our debts. There is a glimmer of hope here and that comes from a renewed awakening in the Capitol about a need to cap spending and maybe even raise revenue. Talk of a national sales tax is making the rounds, as is talk about capping entitlements. Not good news for the average Joe or Jane, that’s for sure. But, there is no doubt in my mind that we will see moves in the weeks and months ahead to self impose an austerity program for government spending. The markets will demand it and it could turn rather ugly if the politicians don’t listen.
The US Dollar is the world reserve currency – we have the biggest and most well oiled printing press (with the exception of Zimbabwe). But all that does is buy us time. Time to right the ship and put the country back on course to prosperity. It will be a long time before we see growth rates of 3% or 4%, but the objective RIGHT NOW is not necessarily to grow like gangbusters, but not to end up as part of a new acronym.
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