Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The EU Sovereign Debt Crisis: There Are No Safe Havens

The EU sovereign debt crisis has metastasized in two weeks from being a problem with Greece, to being a problem with Italy, Spain and France. Bond yield spreads for the debt of these much larger countries are widening away from German bunds. The dollar is once again dearly loved in the capital markets in spite of the Federal Reserve's persecution of positive returns on dollar denominated loans. The EU's much touted expansion of its bailout fund to over one trillion Euros is d.o.a. With the large Romance language speaking nations on the cart approaching the guillotine, a trillion or two just doesn't amount to jack, especially since this proposal was simply another paper shuffling shell game to flim flam creditors into believing that swapping new EU debt for old debt was somehow in their interest. The EU's overall ability to repay has been deteriorating. Why would new debt be attractive?

With all the turmoil, one would think that gold would be skyrocketing in value. But it hasn't. Since reaching its peak of $1923 per ounce this past summer, gold dropped below $1600 and has recently meandered around in the $1700s. As we discussed in September (see, gold is intimately linked to financial assets, and derives its value from financial market interactions. It's no safe haven.

Nor is anything else. Countries that are viewed as having sound currencies, like Switzerland, have been intervening in the currency markets to keep their exchange ratios down. Otherwise, capital will flood in, drive up the value of their currencies, and wreck their export businesses.

Weirdly, the U.S. dollar has by default remained the world's safe haven. If nothing else, investors know that, in the worst case, the U.S. Treasury will conspire with the Fed to print however much money it takes to pay America's debts. The Congressional Supercommittee tasked with reducing the federal deficit is on the verge of belly flopping. But the financial markets remain sanguine, evidently believing that capital has nowhere else to go.

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