We have the curious situation of New Spanish issuance being bought by Spanish banks then repoed at favorable rates back into the ECB as collateral against debt taken out for this very purpose. The politicians have now agreed bailouts for the banks (but not for Spain itself) in the full knowledge that most of such bailout monies will be used for exactly the purposes described above.
The question must be: how much more will northern Europe tolerate? As times get tougher in Greece, Spain and Italy more of the little business still being done is actually flowing into the black market, exacerbating already critical deficit problems.
Forcing through stern excise adherence needs to be done when times are good not when many businesses are struggling for survival. This actually is the knub of the problem of the eurozone since its inception; Southern States previously accepted a generally deteriorating currency in exchange for a certain laxness in fiscal responsibility. Other the other hand, the much bigger North (economically) certainly did not.
When the good times rolled all the politicians basked in the supposed genius of the new bloc studiously ignoring all of the ever more strident warnings of productivity dislocation and failing dismally to impose any form of regional spending controls. The saying ‘your sins will find you out’ could hardly be more apposite in this situation as Germany and France (who were amongst the first to break the piously agreed deficit limitations back in 2003) are now requiring just such a response from the weaker members.
Where then, does this leave equities?
Well, oddly enough there is an argument to say that corporate assets might well become the safe haven investment of the future. The ability to move companies from one jurisdiction to another if the regulatory/tax burdens becomes too extreme, the general fiscal responsibility of the vast majority of executive boards, their generally low debt position and the high profit margins lead one to consider that equities and corporate bonds are a rather safer home than sovereign debt (of whichever nation).
The major advantage of a sovereign nation has always been the accepted lore of their ability to raise taxes no matter what the economic situation. Even so, as we see from Spain and Italy’s recent tax receipt numbers—and even the UK over the past few months—this accepted truism may be starting to wear thin. People in general continue to lose any respect for their government’s ability to spend wisely. If then the average German, Finn or Dutchman decides that bailing out Southern Europe is not his responsibility and we effectively move towards a Greek position on paying tax, or voting for parties that espouse a more isolationist policy, the general deficit situation may well deteriorate exponentially.
All the while, returns on equities look to be attractive in the current interest rate environment. The FTSE 100 yield is over 4% as is the Stoxx 50 and the dividend adjusted price versus the cost of acquisition is now at historically high levels. Obviously, dividends might well be lowered over the coming years as growth looks more remote, but interest rates are likely to remain sub 1% as well, so even a reduction in payments might not be accompanied by a fall in price. Returns on stocks have remained remarkably stable despite the current political brouhaha. However, this might be the time that this ‘value’ was reappraised upwards to reflect falling returns elsewhere.
For all of the truly awful news of the last six to twelve months the FTSE is still pretty much where it was this time last year. It might not take much in the way of good news to send us higher. Of course, this said, we do still need the politicians to make at least a couple of good choices!
As ever ladies and gentlemen, place your bets!