While Europe is getting a lot of attention for its debt problems, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig says the U.S. may be in worse financial condition than many of the so-called “PIIGS” nations. And, he says, rather than running from European equities, it may be time to start snatching them up.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Zweig says, the U.S.’s debt is 92.6% of its projected 2010 gross domestic product. While lower than debt-laden Greece (124.1%) and Italy (118.6%), the U.S. figure is actually higher than those of European trouble spots like Portugal (85.9%), Ireland (78.8%), and Spain (66.9%). Zweig adds that economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have shown that a debt/GDP ratio above 90% is associated with a decline in economic growth of about one percentage point per year.
While companies and individuals have been paying down debt in the past year or two, Zweig says those debts “have merely been shifted onto the books of the federal government — in what may be the highest-stakes shell game ever.” Since the end of the third quarter of 2008, U.S. public debt has jumped from $5.8 trillion to $8.4 trillion, he says.
In terms of investing, Zweig says that the typical assets one might turn to in an environment where debt is high, inflation looms, and risks still remain for the economy — i.e., gold, commodities, emerging-markets stocks, and inflation-protected bonds — “are already so popular that they are likely overpriced.”
Zweig says aggressive investors might want to start doing some equity bargain-shopping in Europe, where prices have tumbled. But, he says there’s “no rush”; the best course of action for many investors, he says, may be to sit tight and wait until better opportunities pop up.