Unlike Greece or Portugal, the Italian bond market is the third largest in the world. So when interest rates on their sovereign debt skyrocket overnight, the world's stock markets pay attention. It was a massacre.
Wednesday's decline was breathtaking with all three U.S. indexes declining over 3 percent, giving back in one day what it took a week to gain. World markets followed suit taking a huge bite out of investors' recent stock gains. As I wrote last week, volatility is here to stay and maintaining a defensive investment posture is a good strategy.
Readers should be aware that I am writing this column on Thursday, which is the 236th birthday of the Marine Corps. As a Marine (no ex's allowed) and a Vietnam vet, I will be taking off Veterans Day. Usually, I wouldn't worry about missing one day in the markets, but these are not ordinary times.
The financial contagion that began with Greece almost two years ago has inexorably spread through the PIGS nations to the more dominant economies of the EU. Italy is the current target of investor concern, but I have noticed that even French interest rates have started to climb. Why does that matter to the stock markets?
Let's use Italy as an example. Its debt load at $2.6 trillion is the second highest in Europe (after Germany) and the fourth largest in the world. That is nothing new. The Italians have always lived above their means but have made their debts payments on time each year, thanks to a fairly strong economy. The Italians pay off the annual interest owed by tapping the debt markets for more money. As long as they can continue to borrow at a low rate of interest everything is copacetic.
It would be similar to you paying your minimum monthly credit card payment by borrowing more on the card. Because interest rate charges on credit card balances are north of 20 percent, you would soon find the minimum payment getting larger and larger. At some point, even that minimum payment would overwhelm your ability to pay. What's worse, the credit card company would then refuse to lend you any more money.
Because of the concerns over finances in Europe in general, and high debtor nations in particular, investors are demanding more and more interest to refinance government debt. They are not demanding credit card rates quite yet, but they don't need to.
In Italy this week, interest rates on government debt rose to above 7 percent. Granted it is a long way from our credit card's 20 percent, but it is high enough when you are a couple of trillion dollars in debt. At that 7 percent level, investors believe the Italians might have trouble paying off their minimum payment due. As these worries increase, buyers will demand higher and higher interest to compensate for the perceived risk. It becomes a vicious spiral. If allowed to play out, no one will lend to them, Italy goes bankrupt, which could trigger a domino effect throughout other debtor nations around the globe.
At its center, the problem is not that Italy's economy is in trouble. It is an issue of confidence. Let's face it, Silvio Berlusconi, the nation's recent prime minister, is considered more of an Italian Stallion than a Julius Caesar. But his agreement to resign has left a leadership vacuum at the worst possible time.
At the same time, the EU has still not provided the confidence or the plan necessary to stop these "runs on the bank." In Italy's case, the "too big to fail" slogan aptly applies. Nothing that the EU has proposed so far is large enough to bail out Italy, if push comes to shove.
It appears European leaders are still playing catch up, always one step behind the latest crisis. They are unwilling (or unable) to come up with a truly comprehensive plan to resolve the on-going crisis. I believe that the structure of the European Union is largely to blame for this problem. Unlike our own country, where the Federal Reserve, in combination with our Treasury, can (and did) intervene decisively in the financial markets, Europe has no such mechanism. It may well be that such powers will be developed as the crisis deepens. One thing is for sure, investors worldwide will keep their feet to the fire until a solution is found.
I hope all vets everywhere have a great Veterans Day; as for all you Marines, active or otherwise - Happy Birthday and Semper Fi.
Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.
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Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of BMM. None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill’s insights.