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13.2.10

Relax, the Greeks are doing fine

February 13, 2010

All this Greek stuff isn't exactly good for the old fear factor but let's keep it in perspective. If you look at the problem on a debt-to-GDP basis the Greek government has a debt that equates to 125 per cent of GDP. Let's put this in human terms (apologies to economists).

This is like an Australian family earning $100,000 a year having a mortgage of $125,000 and on that equivalent the Greek government is cruising because the average adult wage in Australia is about $64,906 and the average mortgage is $354,000. In other words, the average mortgaged adult in Australia has a debt-to-GDP ratio of 545 per cent. Put another way, Greece is like an average Australian with an $81,000 mortgage and the average Australian is worse off than Zimbabwe (300 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio), Japan (192 per cent), the US (60 per cent) and Britain (47 per cent). Not too flash is it. On this basis, the US is cruising, Britain is flush and Greece can still afford to buy a boat.

I spoke to an economist before I made this analogy. I asked at what point does debt as a percentage of GDP become a problem. His reply was "When people think it's a problem."

And this is why Greece is now the problem. Because people think it is. It is also why the US dollar is not a problem. Because people don't think it is. The US economy's annual income can easily fund their debt repayments, and the greenback will remain the world's reserve currency and a safe haven as long as that's the case.

So when does your mortgage become a problem? The answer is the same, "when the bank thinks it's a problem".

When I first got a mortgage the banks had a rule of thumb that said our relationship would become a problem if my interest costs got over 30 per cent of my gross income. But with an average mortgage of $354,000 and a variable mortgage rate of 6.74 per cent the average mortgaged adult is paying $23,859 in interest a year. That's 36.7 per cent of the average gross income, 47 per cent of net income and 58 per cent if they repay capital as well. The average mortgaged adult is spending well over half their total net income on servicing debt.

Clearly the banks have relaxed a little since my day, no doubt because the median house price is approaching $500,000, meaning the average mortgage is only about 70 per cent of the average house value, which gives the banks about 30 per cent of your house or $146,000 of your equity as a buffer before they really need to worry about your ability to service the interest. With that sort of cushion the banks aren't really too fussed about your income and whether you have enough income to eat, they'll only start worrying when your debt gets bigger than your asset.

The fact is, Greece is better off than the average Australian. The only reason it is under the pump is because people think it's a problem. In the same way the only reason the US dollar isn't in a hole is because people don't think it's a problem and the only reason you aren't in a panic to pay off your mortgage is because you don't think it's a problem. Which, as long as house prices hold up, it isn't.

But debt is becoming what it used to be, a liability not an opportunity and while this continues the sharemarket will increasingly discount companies with debt issues. Speculation is out, preservation is in. The question now is how long it goes on.

Unfortunately the last perception of debt lasted 22 years. Let's hope this one doesn't. Parties are so much more fun.

Marcus Padley is a stockbroker with Patersons Securities and the author of the daily stockmarket newsletter Marcus Today.

http://www.smh.com.au/business/relax-the-greeks-are-doing-fine-20100212-nxh4.html

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