Business Beat: Craig Allen

With Greece’s precarious political situation changing almost by the hour, a national referendum hangs in the balance and, with it, world markets that are closely watching how the events may affect the nation’s even more perilous economic condition — as well as their own.

Embattled Prime Minister George Papandreou had proposed an early December vote to determine whether his countrymen would accept the austerity measures to which the government has already agreed as a prerequisite to receive bailout funding from the Eurozone’s European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).

The fact that there even may be a national vote has been enough to roil financial markets across the globe. Looking ahead, what would a Greek referendum mean for U.S. markets, and why should we care?

Regardless of whether this referendum takes place, or what the outcome is if there is a vote, the bigger question is will Greece ever repay the money it is borrowing? My answer is a resounding absolutely not, no way, never gonna happen!

The problem is that Greece simply doesn’t have the money and, more important, never will have the money. The whole reason the country is in this position of needing to borrow so much money — probably close to 100 billion euros before it is out of hot water — is because Greece is spending far more than it brings in each year in revenues. More important, it will continue to spend far more than it can ever hope to bring in for many years to come.

We can argue about the reasons for this — it could be because Greece is a socialist country, because Greeks are lazy, because no one seems to pay taxes there, because the government promises guaranteed jobs for such a high percentage of the population, because the country relies almost exclusively on tourism for its GDP — the list goes on. For U.S. investors, it really doesn’t matter why Greece can’t pay its bills. What does matter is the impact that Greece’s behavior will have on our financial markets over the short and long term.

In the short term, there are two basic possibilities — the referendum will result in a lack of support for the austerity measures that the Greek government agreed to in order to receive the bailout funds it has received to date. This will likely mean that Greece will not receive any more funds from the EFSF, or from any other external sources. Greece has something like a 10 percent current account deficit, which just means it is hugely dependent on money coming from outside the country to run the economy.

At this point, Greece is not out of the woods and still needs more money — probably another 20 billion or 30 billion euros minimum — to carry it through the upcoming bond maturities so that the country does not directly default on its sovereign debt. A no-go vote on the referendum would mean an immediate lockout for Greece on any external funding sources, and this would likely last for many, many years. The result also would likely include Greece’s removal from the European Union and the ceasation of its use of the euro as its currency.

The risk to the EU and by extension the U.S. financial markets and economy, would be the possibility of a domino effect, whereby other countries throughout southern Europe, and to include Ireland, would potentially also default on the sovereign debt and exit the EU. A collapse of the EU and the euro as a currency would cause massive and lasting disruption in international commerce, and would spell disaster for financial markets and economies across the globe, certainly including the United States.

The second possibility is that the referendum results in a positive vote to support the austerity measures to which Greece has already agreed. In the short run, this would be a huge positive, and I believe the U.S. markets (and other markets across the planet) would rally. A positive referendum vote would solidify Papandreou’s position, and would provide confidence that stability would be achievable. The focus could then shift to some of the other countries that are in need of significant assistance. In the intermediate term, these other countries bring their own substantial challenges for global financial markets, but at least for now, things would stabilize a bit and markets would likely perform well.

In the long run, I do not believe Greece will be able to pay its bills, including meeting debt payments — interest and principal on its sovereign debt. Greece simply cannot afford it today and won’t be able to afford it in the future anymore than it can today. At some point, Greece will default completely on its sovereign debt, and at that point, whenever it happens, we will be forced to deal with it.

However, if we can get past this initial phase of turmoil, stabilize Greece in the short term, focus more on the other problem countries of the EU, and get them stabilized, we can treat Greece as an isolated problem, which will make the impact of its inevitable default much more manageable.

Craig Allen, CFA, CFP, CIMA, is president of Montecito Private Asset Management LLC and founder of Dump Your Debt. He has been managing assets for foundations, corporations and high-net worth individuals for more than 20 years and is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA charter holder), a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and holds the Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA) certification. He blogs at Finance With Craig Allen and can be contacted at or 805.898.1400. Click here for previous Craig Allen columns. Follow Craig on Twitter: @MPAMCraig.