Spanish bank woes posing greater risks
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Jeremy Glaser is the markets editor with Morningstar US.
With things relatively quiet in Greece as politicians there gear up for the upcoming election later this month, investors have turned their gaze to Spain as worries about that country took centre stage.
Spain is farther away from the precipice than Greece, but its problems are still acute and could very well spill over into the global financial system.
Investors looking for safety might be hard pressed to find it anywhere, but over the long haul, companies with great competitive advantages and sterling balance sheets are likely to hold up better in a crisis than more speculative names and other seemingly safe assets.
Spain's banking system is in a tough spot. The banks are quite wobbly because of the burden of bad loans, an increasingly skittish deposit base that is looking to move cash to more stable banks in Germany and elsewhere, and a bleak economic outlook.
The highest-profile case has been Bankia, which Spain has now partially nationalised and is now planning to sink about 19 billion euros into in order to keep the institution afloat.
If this were the only payment that needed to be made, this news wouldn't be that worrying. But bailouts have a funny way of multiplying.
The core weakness of the banking system can't be addressed until the core of the European problem is addressed. Until depositors are confident that Spain isn't going to leave the euro, they are going to keep seeking safer ground, and without more certainty the Spanish economy is unlikely to improve any time soon.
And it isn't even clear that Spain will be able to raise the money needed for all of the future bailouts.
More loans from the International Monetary Fund and others might be needed. Investors (are rightly) worried that the banking system will become a black hole that will just further compound existing sovereign debt problems.
Add in worries about the strength of Spain's regional governments (each of which had a fair amount of budget autonomy), the still-sky-high unemployment rate, and the painful competitiveness adjustments that need to occur in the country, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture.
A Greek exit from the eurozone or a sudden uptick in the flow of assets out of the country could very well accelerate the crisis in Spain.
Spain is more important to the world and European economy than Greece is, and a collapse of its economy would make big waves.
As we learned in 2008, a financial shockwave can have unexpected consequences and can negatively affect the institutions across the globe.
The truth is, we don't know for sure what will happen if the crisis gets much worse, but there is a real chance the global financial system could be put under immense pressure yet again.
These systemic worries sent investors scurrying for safe-haven investments this week. Yields on US Treasuries, German bunds, and other sovereign debt viewed as strong hit record lows as money flowed into those markets.
Investors are saying they are willing to accept what will likely be a negative real yield during the next decade in order to avoid the potential storm in Europe.
Preservation of capital is certainly an admirable goal, but investors with a longer-term time horizon are setting themselves up for failure if they accept that anaemic return for years to come.