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Get Out!

The world economy is seriously messed up – and so are the markets. Ignore the party music still playing, it's time to get your jacket and head towards the door...

THIS WASN'T a bad effort, as far as can kicks go. The question you should ask, though, is how long it will take the market to accept this latest European bailout still doesn't solve any fundamental problems. It is just a shameless attempt for gain without pain, says Greg Canavan in the Daily Reckoning Australia.

Let's look at a few of the details. Greece will get a 50 per cent haircut on its debt? Not so fast. Their total debt load is a mind-boggling €350 billion. This includes around €70 billion in loans from the IMF etc. and about €75 billion that the European Central Bank (ECB) has kindly purchased from the private sector.

These amounts will not be subject to a haircut, so Greece is still on the hook for this debt. That leaves around €200 billion subject to the 50 per cent reduction...which actually means it's only a (roughly) 30 per cent trim (we wouldn't even call it a haircut).

Given Greek pension funds and banks own a decent chunk of this outstanding amount, it's easy to see who's really paying for this. Banks 1 Greece 0.

As an aside, events like this go to show the mainstream press are not up to the task of reporting the facts. Today's front page of the Australian says the haircut will cost banks €150 billion. Then one dot point later it says banks will be forced to strengthen their balance sheets by €106 billion...which, if true, would leave a capital deficit of €44 billion. Clearly, it's not true.

This will apparently leave Greece with a debt-to-GDP (Gross domestic product, or economic growth) ratio of 120 per cent by 2020. The Bank for International Settlements recently released a paper showing debt levels were bad for growth when debt hit around 85 per cent of GDP.

How is Greece meant to return to private debt markets and borrow unassisted with a still debilitating debt load? (Banks 2 Greece 0).

But that's not really the point of this whole exercise. It's a political stunt designed for maximum gain and minimum pain. And as far as the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) goes, there's only 'agreement' to leverage it up, with no concrete details on where the money will come from.

Apparently the 'rich' nations of China and Brazil (the ones with income per head of population much lower than the countries they are meant to be helping) will stump up some cash for the EFSF. We'll see. If they have any brains they'll steer clear.

And China could well be occupied with its own problems. According to a recent FT report...

In recent days, small and sporadic demonstrations have broken out at a handful of real estate sales offices in large cities such as Shanghai, with angry recent homebuyers organizing sit-ins and demanding refunds after developers started offering discounts on neighboring apartments to attract new customers.

The cracks are starting to appear in China's property and fixed asset investment bubble. Authorities have halted work on 6,000 miles of railway construction because financing has dried up.

The government has stepped in to guarantee the debts of the Railway Ministry to try to get credit flowing to the sector again.

Good luck...the Ministry has a debt load of around US$330 billion, or 5 per cent of GDP. There is so much overcapacity and inefficiency that debt has grown faster than the revenues from the network.

As China's investment boom subsides - and it surely will - there will be plenty of other ministries and broke local governments putting their hand out for central government support and guarantees.

If you think Western nations are liberal with the bailouts, wait until China buckles under the weight of its credit boom. Everyone who bought an apartment in the past two years will be screaming at the government to get his or her money back.

As a result, the Chinese government's fiscal position will be much more precarious this time next year. So Europe better hurry up and coax money out of the Chinese while the central planners are still laboring under the misapprehension they can control their economy.

A Daily Reckoning reader recently visited China and kindly sent us some observations. Here are a few of them:

  1. The very best apartment space in Shanghai is quoted as Y120,000 per square meter, that's about $NZ24,000. I suspect that is more expensive than just about anywhere else in the world and the quality of life is well below Aussie or NZ standards.
  2. There are plenty of half built apartment buildings on which work appears to have stopped, especially in the smaller cities (small by Chinese standards)
  3. Nothing good is cheap. A Longines watch my wife bought in NZ for $460 was priced at Y25,600 (NZ$5,120) in Shanghai.
  4. The China Daily reports that the money for many railroad and highway projects has run out. Evidence of this is plain to see with unfinished bridges a common sight. The same report says that many migrant workers have not been paid wages for up to 4 months. (Could only happen in a Socialist Paradise!)

China has one of the most lopsided economies in history. Investment (in things like bridges, railways, apartments etc.) represents nearly 50 per cent of economic output. In its industrialization phase in the late 1960s, not even Japan was so dependent on investment spending to generate economic growth.

And when that spending is fuelled by credit (using pumped up land values as collateral) you get price inflation and poorly allocated resources. This is what our DR reader sees on the ground in China.

So enjoy this stock market rally while it lasts. The Europeans have filled the punchbowl and turned up the music. Everyone is dancing.

But like the Troubled Asset Relief Program (the US bank bailout) based rally in 2008, this one will also fade. Within a few months, it will be evident the debt crisis is spreading. If we have learned anything over the past few years, it is that government interference in the market mechanism creates tremendous distortions.

These distortions don't manifest straight away. While they are building, false hope and optimism cloud their emergence. But we can guarantee that unintended consequences are already unfolding. When they will show themselves is anyone's guess.

So while the music's blaring, it might be worth nonchalantly making your way to the door. Because when the music stops this time around, the exits will get very crowded.

Ready to buy gold...?

Greg Canavan is editor and publisher of Sound Money, Sound Investments, a weekly financial report devoted to unearthing great value investments amid today's "money illusion" of fiat currency. Formerly editor of Australia's market-leading finance newsletter, Greg has been a regular guest on CNBC, ABC and BoardRoomRadio, as well as a contributor to publications as diverse as and the Sydney Morning Herald.

See the full archive of Greg Canavan.

Please Note: All articles published here are to inform your thinking, not lead it. Only you can decide the best place for your money, and any decision you make will put your money at risk. Information or data included here may have already been overtaken by events – and must be verified elsewhere – should you choose to act on it. Please review our Terms & Conditions for accessing Gold News.

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