How to invest like an “unprincipled speculator”

March 10, 2010
Pattaya, Thailand

Yesterday I apparently declared a premature end to major combat operations against the virus that has invaded my body.  Maybe it was just the celebratory Mexican food I ate last night to commemorate the end of my 4-day sickness, but I now seem to be experiencing my own W-shaped recovery.

Always the optimist, though, I’m actually grateful for a few things; namely, I’ve been too consumed with the rugby match being played inside my cranium to pay much attention to the most recent socialist musings of European leaders– something that would ordinarily have me spitting fire at the magnitude of their arrogance.

Most glaringly, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has been on a bicontinental tour seeking political support to eliminate some forms of derivatives trading… all with the goal of preventing “unprincipled speculators” from making money by betting on a Greek default.

Rather than misdirecting his criticism at speculators, though, Papandreou should look no further than the nearest mirror to levy criticism.  As a legendary Greek political family, three different Papandreous have spent a combined 10-years as Prime Minister, so there has been ample opportunity to get spending under control.

To lay blame at “unprincipled speculators” as a chief cause of the Greek crisis is thus completely ignorant and hypocritical.  Not to mention, Papandreou should be courting speculators to buy his country’s debt, not vilifying them.

His biggest ally in Europe right now is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As head of the continent’s largest economy, she is completely on board with the idea of banning credit default swaps (CDS) for the sake of speculation.

A CDS contract for sovereign debt is a bit like an insurance policy designed to protect the downside risk of a bondholder in case the country defaults. As you could imagine, the price of the CDS contract rises and falls based on the creditworthiness of the bond issuer.

As an example, an investor who owns a lot of Greek debt may want to enter into a CDS contract so that he will receive a payout if Greece defaults. As part of the deal he makes payments (like an insurance premium) to the CDS counterparty… who is… guess what? A speculator!

Without speculation, there would be no counterparty on the other end of the deal, and without these credit default swap insurance policies, no one would be willing to buy Greek debt because the risk would be too high.

Meanwhile, in the opposite corner of Europe, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a rather frantic speech today as he struggles to stay relevant in the upcoming election.

For the duration of his remarks, Brown defended his response to the financial crisis, indicating that the borrowing and printing of unprecedented volumes of money were the only sensible things to do given the situation, and insisting that he is the right man to lead his country through the recovery.

When you look at the data, though, despite all the money he has been borrowing, printing, and spending, it doesn’t seem to be doing the UK economy much good.

Ah, nevermind those “conflicting statistics,” Brown said. And as for the UK’s AAA credit rating, which is under serious scrutiny due to the country’s significant debt and deficit, Brown insists that his country will not be downgraded.

How does he know? Apparently his gut told him. Or maybe his cat. Because he sure as hell didn’t ask Fitch, one of the groups responsible for the UK’s ratings.

Ironically, Fitch’s head of sovereign ratings recently said: “Britain had seen the most rapid rise in the ratio of public debt to gross domestic product (GDP) of any AAA-rated country. . . Why the UK thinks it has more time than other countries [before being downgraded], we’re not sure.”

Like most career politicians, Brown is completely clueless, yet concerned only about being reelected.  This is truly sickening, but unfortunately all too common.

So what are the investment implications of Gordon Brown continuing to ravage his economy, and Merkel handicapping European market liquidity?

For starters, I believe this will result in capital flight.  Of the major currencies in the world that can actually absorb huge capital flows, the dollar is, believe it or not, the least ugly one at the moment, so there will likely be some continued dollar strength against the pound and euro.

Not to mention, a stronger dollar would be most welcome by Europe’s exporters.

As the dollar is, however, fundamentally weak, I would expect the European currencies to post an even larger decline against the strongest Asia-Pacific currencies, as well as precious metals (a position I first recommended in December).

Lastly, I don’t think that any of this news is good news for European equities, and I personally plan on taking a large short position in those markets with some protective options.

To be clear, I will make a lot of money on these investments if Europe continues down this path of destruction… and I suppose that makes me an “unprincipled speculator” too.

About the Author

Simon Black is an international investor, entrepreneur, and founder of Sovereign Man. His free daily e-letter Notes from the Field is about using the experiences from his life and travels to help you achieve more freedom, make more money, keep more of it, and protect it all from bankrupt governments.