What to do when the next eurozone panic hits the markets

Forget the US 'fiscal cliff' – closer to home, Greece may be about to plunge over its own version. John Stepek explains how investors should react.

We've been hearing a lot about the US fiscal cliff' recently.

Barack Obama and the Republicans (now there's a name for a band) are squabbling over the best way to put America's finances on a sounder footing. Their deadline is 1 January 2013.

But another cliff is looming, much closer to home: the Greek fiscal cliff.

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And judging by the tone of last night's angry debating in Europe, Greece could end up flying right over it

Greece is still Europe's most obvious problem

Nearly four years on from the revelation of the original budget fiddles, you might have thought that Greece's financial situation would have been resolved by now. No such luck.

Europe is still debating what to do about it. The country even managed to inspire yet another fit of panic in the currency markets yesterday.

Greece has to repay about €5bn in government debt this Thursday. The way governments tend to do this is by issuing new bonds. So they just roll over' the debt.

Trouble is, that means you need to find a lender who's willing to roll over the debt. And the question is: who would be mad enough to lend to Greece just now?

Olli Rehn, the EU's top economic official (according to the FT), has referred to this as the "Greek fiscal cliff". Nice to see that our European officials have at least retained their senses of humour.

So what will happen?

Well, so far, the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been supplying Greece with bail-out money. But the next tranche of €31.3bn has been delayed for a while now. And it's not coming any time before next week.

The problem is, the EU and the IMF can't agree on the conditions underpinning this aid.

Last night, Jean-Claude Juncker, for the EU, told a press conference that Greece would have to reduce its national debt to 120% of GDP by 2022. That's two years later than originally agreed. But Christine Lagarde head of the IMF butted in to disagree, saying that the 2020 deadline is still in force.

Those kinds of public spats are never great for market confidence. Now they'll all meet up again on November 20th to try to reach a deal again. That won't necessarily be easy to do. If Greece is to have any hope of hitting the 2020 deadline, then realistically, that implies that the EU will have to write off some of the bailout money.

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of having to tell domestic voters that they've just paid a load of money to Greece that won't be coming back, does not appeal to many politicians. Germany, Finland and Denmark have already said that writing off any of the loan is a no-no.

This Greek tale will run and run

So where does this leave Greece? Greek banks have been buying up Greek government debt. Won't they come to the rescue again? Not everyone is convinced.

The reason Greek banks have been buying Greek debt is because the European Central Bank (ECB) accepts them as collateral for cheap loans. But the ECB is now stuffed to the gills with Greek debt and isn't prepared to accept anymore. As the FT puts it, "without the ability to use treasury bills as collateral, Greek banks have little financial incentive to purchase them."

Rehn says that this doesn't matter. The Greek banks now have enough cash to buy the debt anyway. And a report in City AM (via German paper Die Welt) this morning suggests that the ECB will allow Greek banks "to tap emergency loans from Greece's national central bank" to roll over the debt.

But you can see why this rescue plan held together as it is with sticky-backed plastic and last-minute double-dealing has left investors feeling rattled. The euro slid against the dollar.

And even if Greece gets over the immediate hurdle of repaying this batch of debt, the long-term problem is still there. Unlike most of the other troubled eurozone countries, Greece can't really be said to have embraced austerity and accepted its fate. The Irish and the Portuguese aren't too happy with the way things are. But they've made an effort.

That means Angela Merkel can pat them on the head and tell her electorate that Ireland and Portugal deserve credit. That makes it easier to be lenient when and if more loans are needed.

You can't say the same for Greece. And if the country isn't seen to be making enough effort on its part, eventually its lenders are going to get fed up. The fact that the IMF and the EU are already openly disagreeing doesn't bode well for the chances of finding a solution.

Eurozone panics are buying opportunities

All this means for investors is that you can expect more of the same. There will be regular panics over the eurozone. And at some point, we may see Greece exiting which we suspect would be a cue for massive money-printing by the ECB.

What should you make of these intermittent panics? See them as buying opportunities. The peripheral European markets remain among the cheapest in the world, even although they've bounced strongly since the lows this summer.

As we've noted before, we like Italy it has much stronger fundamentals than the other troubled nations but if you're feeling very brave, you might be tempted to dip a toe in the other peripheral nations too.

And if you're interested in betting on the euro, you might want to sign up for our free MoneyWeek Trader email. Spread betting is highly risky, but our trading expert John C Burford can show you various techniques to help minimise your losses and maximise your profits.

This article is taken from the free investment email Money Morning. Sign up to Money Morning here .

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John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.