Tag Archives: authorities

Investor Concerns: Greece Is the Word

Unless you have been living on a desert island, you are aware that Greece is in the midst of trying to resolve its financial difficulties with European authorities. This is just the latest round in a financial drama that has been playing out for a number of years now. Up to this point, the solution by both euro authorities and Greek leaders has been to delay any type of financial resolution. And that is the exact prescription handed down just a few weeks ago as Greece approached a February month-end debt payment of a magnitude it could not meet. Greece has been given another four months to come up with some type of restructuring plan. At this point, we’ve simply stopped counting how many times euro authorities have kicked the Greek can down the road.

Why all the drama regarding Greece? Greece represents only about 2% of Eurozone GDP. Who cares whether Greece is part of the euro? The Greek economy simply isn’t a big enough piece of the entire euro economy to really matter, is it?

The fact is that the key problems in the Greek drama have very little to do with the Greek economy specifically. The issues illuminate the specific flaw in the euro as a currency and the fact that the euro authorities are very much hoping to protect the European banking system. The reason we need to pay attention is that the ultimate resolution of these issues will have an impact on our investment decision making.

A key characteristic of the euro, which was formed in 1998, is that there is no one overall guarantor of euro area government debt. Think about the U.S. If the U.S. borrows money to fund building bridges in five states, the U.S. government (via the taxpayer) is the guarantor of the debt; it is not the individual debt of the five states involved. Yes, individual U.S. states can take on state-specific debt, but states cannot print money, as can large governments, so there are limiting factors. In Japan, the Japanese government guarantees yen-based government debt. In the U.S., the federal government guarantees U.S. dollar-based government debt. In Europe, there is no one singular “European government debt” guarantor of essentially euro currency government debt. The individual countries are their own guarantors.

The Eurozone has the only common currency on planet Earth without a singular guarantor of government debt. All the euro area governments essentially guarantee their own debt, yet have a common currency and interest rate structure. No other currency arrangement like this exists in today’s global economy. Many have called this the key flaw in the design of the euro. Many believe the euro as a currency cannot survive this arrangement. For now, the jury is out on the question of euro viability, but that question is playing out in country-specific dramas, such as Greece is now facing.

One last key point in the euro currency evolution. As the euro was formed, the European Central Bank essentially began setting interest rate policy for all European countries. The bank’s decisions, much like those of the Fed in the U.S., affected interest rates across the Eurozone economies. Profligate borrowers such as Greece enjoyed low interest rates right alongside fiscally prudent countries like Germany. There is no interest rate differentiation for profligate or prudent individual government borrowers in Europe. Moreover, the borrowing and spending of profligate countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and, yes, even France, for years benefited the export economies of countries such as Germany — the more these countries borrowed, the better the Germany economy performed.

This set of circumstances almost seemed virtuous over the first decade of the euro’s existence. It is now that the chickens have come home to roost, Greece being just the opening act of a balance sheet drama that is far from over. Even if we assume the Greek debt problem can be fixed, without a single guarantor of euro government debt going forward the flaw in the currency remains. Conceptually, there is only one country in Europe strong enough to back euro area debt, and that’s Germany. Germany’s continuing answer to potentially being a guarantor of the debt of Greece and other Euro area Governments? Nein. We do not expect that answer to change any time soon.

You’ll remember that over the last half year, at least, we have been highlighting the importance of relative currency movements in investment outcomes in our commentaries. The problematic dynamics of the euro has not been lost on our thinking or actions, nor will it be looking ahead.

The current debt problems in Greece also reflect another major issue inside the Eurozone financial sector. Major European banks are meaningful holders of country-specific government debt. Euro area banks have been accounting for the investments at cost basis on their books, as opposed to marking these assets to market value. In early February, Lazard suggested that Greece needs a 50% reduction in its debt load to be financially viable. Germany and the European Central Bank (ECB) want 100% repayment. You can clearly see the tension and just who is being protected. If Greece were to negotiate a 50% reduction in debt, any investor (including banks) holding the debt would have to write off 50% of the value of the investment. At the outset of this commentary, we asked, why is Greece so important when it is only 2% of Eurozone GDP? Is it really Greece the European authorities want to protect, or is it the European banking system?

Greece is a Petri dish. If Greece receives debt forgiveness, the risk to the Eurozone is that Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc. could be right behind it in requesting equal treatment. The Eurozone banking system could afford to take the equity hit in a Greek government debt write-down. But it could not collectively handle Greece, Italy, Spain and other debt write-downs without financial ramifications.

The problem is meaningful. There exist nine countries on planet Earth where debt relative to GDP exceeds 300%. Seven of these are European (the other two are Japan and Singapore):

Debt as % of GDP

IRELAND                                           390 %

PORTUGAL                                       358

BELGIUM                                          327

NETHERLANDS                                325

GREECE                                             317

SPAIN                                                 313

DENMARK                                        302

SWEDEN                                           290

FRANCE                                             280

ITALY                                                 267

As we look at the broad macro landscape and the reality of the issues truly facing the Eurozone in its entirety, what does another four months of forestalling Greek debt payments solve? Absolutely nothing.

How is the Greek drama/tragedy important to our investment strategy and implementation? As we have been discussing for some time now, relative global currency movements are key in influencing investment outcomes. Investment assets priced in ascending currencies will be beneficiaries of global capital seeking both return and principal safety. The reverse is also true. While the Greek debt crisis has resurfaced over the last six months, so, too, has the euro lost 15% of its value relative to the dollar. Dollar-denominated assets were strong performers last year as a result.

The second important issue to investment outcomes, as we have also discussed many a time, is the importance of capital flows, whether they be global or domestic. What has happened in Europe since the Greek debt crisis has resurfaced is instructive. The following combo chart shows us the leading 350 European stock index in the top clip of the chart and the German-only stock market in the bottom.

Untitled

Broadly, euro area equities have not yet attained the highs seen in 2014. But German stocks are close to 15% ahead of their 2014 highs. Why? Germany is seen as the most fiscally prudent and financially strong of the euro members. What we are seeing is capital gravitating toward the perception of safety that is Germany, relative to the euro area as a whole. This is the type of capital flow analysis that is so important in the current environment.

The headline media portray the Greek problem as just another country living beyond its means and unable to repay the debts it has accumulated. But the real issues involved are so much more meaningful. They cut to the core of euro viability as a currency and stability in the broad euro banking system. The Greek problem’s resurfacing in the last six months has necessarily pressured the euro as a currency and triggered an internal move of equity capital from the broad euro equity markets to individual countries perceived as strong, such as Germany. This is exactly the theme we have been discussing for months. Global capital is seeking refuge from currency debasement and principal safety in the financial markets of countries with strong balance sheets. For now, the weight and movement of global capital remains an important element of our analytical framework.

Watching outcomes ahead for Greece within the context of the greater Eurozone will be important. Greece truly is a Petri dish for what may be to come for greater Europe. Outcomes will affect the euro as a currency, the reality of the Greek economy, the perceived integrity of the European banking system and both domestic and global euro-driven capital flows. For now, Greece is the word.

Preventing Violent Crime on Campuses

Violent crime, a major and growing problem in this country, is exacerbated by the fact that many crimes go unreported. But there’s a simple fix to the lack of reporting: Make it easier for people to tip off authorities anonymously.

Developments in communications technology and in social media can play a decisive role in increasing reporting, especially among young people. Once authorities have more information, they can not only track down more criminals but can develop a fuller picture of where and under what conditions violent crimes occur, and can develop better prevention programs.

In California, the Visalia campus of the College of the Sequoias has a program  allowing individuals to report suspicious behavior on campus to local police anonymously via text, voice mail or email.

“Our best resource, by far, is the students and faculty right here on campus,” Chief of the Police department Bob Masterson told the student newspaper . “Even if you’re not the victim, you could be a great witness.”

Many students said the program, TipNow, keeps them safer; they also consider it a good idea for all campuses.

Such programs are essential because violent crime remains an unfortunate truth in the U.S. According to the FBI’s national crime statistics, 1.2 million violent crimes were committed in the U.S. in 2012, and  even seemingly safe, self-contained campus environments like schools, colleges, hotels, hospitals and corporations are not immune.

At U.S. hospitals, the violent crime rate per 100 hospital beds rose 25%, from 2.0 incidents in 2012 to 2.5 incidents last year, according to research released by the IHSS Foundation at the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety (IAHSS). The rate of disorderly conduct incidents experienced the biggest jump, from 28 per 100 hospital beds in 2012 to 39.2 last year (a rise of 40%). A separate IHSS Foundation study found that 89% of the hospitals surveyed had at least one event of workplace violence in the previous 12 months.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey reported the following statistics for workplace violence between 1993 and 1999:

  • While working or on duty, U.S. residents experienced 1.7 million violent victimizations annually, including 1.3 million simple assaults, 325,000 aggravated assaults, 36,500 rapes and sexual assaults, 70,000 robberies and 900 homicides.
  • Workplace violence accounted for 18% of all violent crime.

From  1997 through 2009, 335 murders occurred on college campuses, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education (2010).  Three-fifths of campus attacks in a 108-year span occurred in the past two decades.

Yet many crimes go unreported to campus authorities. A 1997 study about campus violence by Sloan, Fisher and Cullen found that only 35% of violent crimes on college campuses were reported to authorities.

There are various reasons for not reporting crimes. For example, many may regard a crime as too minor a matter to report or may consider it a private matter. Many studies have shown a reluctance to report crimes or other suspicious activities out of fear of the authorities or of criminal retribution.

For instance, in February 2009 in San Gabriel, Calif., two gunmen opened fire inside a coffee shop, killing one and wounding six others, but police had trouble finding witnesses to what appeared to be a gang-related attack even though the shop was crowded with at least 40 people. Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore was quoted as saying,  “We know people saw something, and we need them to come forward and help us solve this crime.”

Too many Americans are inculcated with the belief that “the authorities will attend to it” – without considering that, in many cases, the appropriate law enforcement agency is unaware of a danger. Although many domestic terrorist events and campus shootings are committed by those whose previous actions were seen by those around them as odd, or even threatening, too often these observations go unreported.

This is why the concept of anonymous reporting is important: to get more information from the campus community. This anonymity is now possible.

TipNow receives tips via SMS/text, email, voice and mobile-app. When the tips hit the TipNow server, the sender’s information is encrypted. The tip is then disseminated to a pre-defined set of administrators on the system via email and SMS/text. The administrators can ask for more information from the tipster, still anonymously. For extra security, the server will delete all identifying information in 24 to 72 hours.

The system looks like this:

TipNow

In a recent interview, an anti-terrorism official (name withheld at his request) expressed his view on prevention: “The ability to gather information, sift through it to find what is useful intelligence – and then rapidly get that information to the right people – can and has made the difference between tragedy and that tragedy being averted.”