2012 - The Year Of Living Dangerously

Submitted by Mark Grant author of the "Out of the Box" financial commentary

2012 - The Year Of Living Dangerously

It is a curious world that we live in these days. America bumping along, China grinding down, Europe gaming the system, bonds trading off Treasuries compressing significantly, equities buoyed by new cash and the dearth of decent places to put capital and a risk factor that increases with each ratchet up of the great European pyramid scheme. It was on January 13, 2010 that I said Greece would default and yesterday S&P placed them in default which was so widely expected that the market yawned and turned its attention to the coming European LTRO. I think the markets will be surprised, during the next few weeks, with the consequences of the Greek default but that remains to be seen. In the meantime, despite the ECB’s open spigot, one of the major banks in Austria needed to be recapitalized yesterday with Austria not only injecting new capital but taking an almost one billion dollar hit.

We are living in a world these days of semi-transparent “knowns” and great “unknowns” that provide a complexity for investing far past any normal scenario. Not only could the markets be turned on the proverbial dime but they could be violently ratcheted down the cliffs of Dover by any number of possible and not outlier events. Knowing about something and understanding the intended and unintended consequences are two different turns of the screw. As the last several years have unfolded I have noted a progress of events where markets rally on manufactured headlines, calm down and then react negatively as the entire story is understood. A pattern has developed in fact which is why I point out the grave dangers lurking now in the Great Game and why I continue to advise caution and cash as we veer off the bumpers in some strange pinball game that sometimes seems to have been mechanized by some hallucinating artist such as Salvador Dali. Europe continues to just barely pull the cat out of the hat but I shudder at the consequences when the trickery no longer produces the desired effects and the audience catches on to the magician’s deceit.

You will recall the days leading into the sub-prime meltdown; easy money, loans without documentation, a massive leveraging up of assets and then the crack in the Earth’s surface and the abyss that we faced. When I regard Europe these days I see a repeat of this cycle which now involves sovereign credits and European banks and easy money and loans without documentation and a massive leveraging up of assets and liabilities with unhampered capital provided by the printing presses at the European Central Bank. The similarities are there for all of us that would like to stop and look, which clearly is not many, but then that was also the case during the heady days of the subprime funding madness. First it was Greece and then Ireland and Portugal and now Spain is sinking into the quicksand and asking for better terms so it doesn’t have to plunge into even greater fiscal controls and austerity measures and the pressures on the fault lines are increasing dramatically in my opinion.

I point specifically to the reasons for my increasing concern; the European banks are three times larger than the European sovereigns, the ECB is not the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, the leading economy in Europe, Germany, is 22% of the economy of America, that there are ever and always consequences for providing free money, that Europe is in a recession and it will be much deeper than thought by many in my view, that the demanded austerity measures are unquestionably worsening the recession and increasing unemployment, that nations become much more self-centered when their economies are contracting and that the more protracted all of this is; the more pronounced Newton’s reaction will be when the pendulum reverses course.

Now I am quite used to being ballyhooed. It was on December 27, 2007 when I identified the risks of subprime mortgages and CDO’s, my early call on Greece was when their ten year yield 4.38% and while perhaps not of giant intellect I am a reasonably good sleuth. I tout nothing but I warn plenty in an effort to keep all of you out of some gaping hole that is squarely in front of the path that we are taking. It is not gloom and doom that I pull around like Pig Pen’s black cloud but a giant warning sign that I plant firmly in the ground which says, “Don’t step here.” Today I point at Europe and intone once again, “Don‘t step here.”