Wall Street has more than bulls and bears. Trading desk banter often refers to the presence of ‘pigs’ in the market. Years removed, I can still hear traders saying, “this market’s a pig,” “this bond’s a pig,” and “that account is a pig.” Well, with my morning coffee I saw a new utilization of this famed reference. I chuckled but also realized the seriousness of the new pig reference in regard to the increasingly dire fiscal situation in the European Union.
What are the PIGS across the pond? Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain.
The Wall Street Journal highlights the disastrous fiscal situation in these countries in writing, Sovereign Risk Meets Sovereign Reality:
After months of shrugging off debt problems in Dubai, Greece and other smaller economies, markets yesterday seemed suddenly aware of the risks of sovereign default.
Back in November, when the question of Dubai’s solvency came to a head, it was ultimately bailed out by its rich older brother, Abu Dhabi. Now, the European Union is doing its best to avoid promising a similar bailout to Greece, though in the end few believe Brussels will allow Athens to go under.
The current crisis in Greece is only the worst example inside the EU. The PIGS—Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain—all boast public debt above or headed for 100% of GDP. Though the PIGS acronym was apparently coined by British bankers, Britain, Ireland and Iceland also smell distinctly of bacon.
The problem isn’t confined to Europe. Japan and the United States, by most reckonings the world’s largest economies, also face pressing questions about their sovereign debt levels. To be sure, the U.S. and Japan can sustain such deficits more comfortably than small countries like Greece or Portugal where the government’s ability to curb public-sector spending is rightly suspect. Yet even in economic giants, bad policy could cause investors to move out of debt they have long considered a safe haven. The moment is approaching when the artificial line separating the wealthy from emerging markets will lose much of its relevance.
What does this all mean? Let’s reduce this to very simple terms. The overall debt relative to GDP within all the aforementioned countries is off the charts. We should make a point of adding the U.K, Ireland, Iceland, and eastern European nations as well. Government backstops are useful for a while but those are akin to putting a finger in a dike. Ultimately the wave of debt keeps coming and must be addressed. What has to happen?
- Increased taxes
- Cuts in services
- Cuts in entitlements
- Higher interest rates
Unless and until these medicines are applied, you can rest assured, these PIGS will not fly.