Greek crisis brings European opportunities

Although it’s still possible to find the occasional cheap stock, local and US markets look expensive. But Europe is the one area that already looks cheap and may well get cheaper still.

For a country buried under a shag pile carpet of red tape, where taxes are optional and hairdressing is deemed a dangerous profession, Greece does elections remarkably well.

Exit polling is so reliable former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras conceded defeat at around 7pm on election night, before counting had even began. Take that AEC.

The result offers no comfort to European leaders and even less to investors. Grexit, perhaps the ugliest phrase of the post-GFC sh*tstorm, is back, this time packing heat.

The European Union and its institutions have only themselves to blame. In attempting to save the Euro – a poor idea made worse each time the zone expands - they put at risk the very idea of union having turned Greece into a kind of austerity-fail ground zero.

Since austerity economics was imposed on the country the economy has shrunk by 25%; one in five people have had their electricity cut off; pensions have been slashed; and unemployment has skyrocketed to 27.4% with youth unemployment hitting 60%. Meanwhile, a third of the population lack access to medical care and more than half the country’s children live below the poverty line.

Had these measures reduced Greek debt there’s an argument - albeit a weak one - that the price, in the way of these things paid by ordinary people rather than those responsible, may have been worth it.

The EU doesn’t have that excuse. In 2010, Greek debt stood at 130% of GDP. Austerity has pushed the figure to 175%. Samaras did everything the troika asked of him only to preside over a massive deterioration in economic performance and social conditions.

Last year the IMF admitted its role in the fiasco but European leaders appear unmoved. George Osborne, UK Chancellor and a leading light among Europe’s economic illiterati, has said the Greek vote is a ‘rejection of failed plans, not austerity itself’. Yeah, right.

Germany is maintaining the same hard line. Which is to say they want ‘their’ money back and to make Greeks pay. Interestingly, the German word for debt – ‘schuld’ – also means ‘guilt’. Just saying.

One of the great myths of the Greek bailouts, and one held resolutely by Germans and just about every bank in hock to the country, is that they benefit Greece.

In fact about 80% of bailout money returns to major European powers, with the financial sector the biggest beneficiary. The Greek bailout is another bank bailout, courtesy of EU taxpayers, that happens to pass through Athens on a computer screen.

Greek voters have long resented this fact, wondering why they should pay for German stupidity. You can understand their reasoning. If German banks were silly enough to take the advice of Goldman Sachs and lend the country money in the first place, surely that’s their problem?

Well, now they’ve had their say. The upshot is this; if austerity economics isn’t repealed and Greek bondholders refuse to wear pain to the tune of €200bn, the EU risks a Eurozone crisis. That is no small risk. According to Bloomberg, Greek credit default swaps now signal a 70% chance of default within five years.

Thus far, both parties are digging in. Angela Merkel is apparently comfortable with a Greek exit from the Eurozone. Greece is a small economy getting smaller all the time. With European banks now better capitalised than they were after the GFC, the Eurozone could handle it, or so the argument goes. But a Greek departure from the Eurozone would be a disaster for Greece. That puts many of the cards in German hands, except for one.

All over Europe parties from the extreme left and right are emerging, united in their loathing of bureaucratic, anti-democratic and in the PIIGS, punitive European rule.

Founded only a year ago, Spanish party Podemos is but the latest. Elections in Spain are due in December and if the Greek experience were repeated left wing Podemos might win. It has shown every inclination to follow Syriza-style policies, including a debt renegotiation with the EU.

As the fifth largest economy in Europe, Spain cannot be ignored in quite the same way as Greece. Nor can basic economics. You can’t shrink an economy by a quarter and increase its debt by almost half and expect to get all your money back. It simply doesn’t happen.

That’s the kicker. My guess is that a deal will be reached, not because the EU wants to be nice to the Greeks, but because of what might happen elsewhere if it isn’t. For the next few months a tense game will be played out over the negotiating table. To use the vernacular, markets will be spooked.

This is the upside for Australian investors. Although it’s still possible to find the occasional cheap stock, local and US markets look relatively expensive. But Europe? It’s the one area that already looks cheap and may well get cheaper still.

To our research director Nathan Bell, who is already picking over the entrails of Irish banks, I have one question: How’s your German?

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