Holiday Retail Trends & Your Budget

In the midst of this holiday season, is your budget holding together? In this blog, we’ll look at the latest holiday spending stats, the most recent trends in giving, and offer a few tips to help you maintain a financially-stress free holiday season. While money is most definitively not the reason for the season, examining current holiday spending trends gives us some insight into the health of the U.S. consumer and might even inspire reflection on our own holiday spending habits.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), total U.S. holiday spending will rise about 2% in 2015 compared to 2014. NRF estimates that the average American will spend about $1,017 in holiday-related items this year versus $1,000 in 2014. No surprise that the bulk of spending, or 72% of budgets, is expected to go towards gift-giving. Family still comes first in this category as consumers plan to spend four-times as much on relatives than on friends. Spending on food comes in at a distant second, eating up 12% of the average American’s holiday budget, but arguably a very important piece of the pie. Other must-haves like decorations, cards, and flowers account for the remaining 16% of most Amercians’ holiday spending.

While holiday spending isn’t surging by any means, it’s up significantly from the depths of the Great Recession when the average American spent only $682 in November and December. For the last several years wage growth has been relatively lackluster while consumer debt has inched lower and savings rates have grown. This suggests consumers learned a valuable, if not painful lesson during the financial crisis: moderation. Lower debt levels and more savings are both net positives for economic growth and asset appreciation. These trends, coupled with signs that wage growth is finally starting to improve, suggests healthier consumers in the years ahead. Given that household consumption accounts for 70% of U.S. gross domestic product or GDP, we may be in for more holiday cheer for years ahead.

Now that we’ve covered some stats, let’s talk about gifts! What do family members want from Santa this year? A poll by the National Retail Federation found that our female relatives rank gift cards as their top gift item, followed by clothing/accessories, books, CDs, and DVDs. While men also named gift cards as number one choice, more of them wanted consumer electronics or computer-related products than women. Looking to give something a little more personal than a gift card? Check out Amazon’s most gifted list (www.amazon.com/gp/most-gifted) for a bevy of ideas by category. Some of the world’s largest online retailer’s best-selling gifts this year include the LEGO Minecraft Playset, the “Inside Out” movie DVD, Amazon’s tablet “fire”, and Adele’s latest CD, among others.

Have a twenty-something in the family mix? A survey from Eventbrite suggests that Millennials prefer experiences over things. In which case you might consider a gift card to the spa or tickets to a play or ball game for the young professionals in your clan.

All this gift-giving talk, while fun to think about, can really strain a budget if not carefully considered. While we’re more than half-way through the holiday season, it’s not too late to reassess your spending plan and even start strategizing for next year. If you’re feeling some financially-related holiday strain, now is the perfect time to stop and take inventory. What was your original holiday budget? Did you have one? And how much have you spent on holiday-related items so far?

In order to relieve money stress, the best and only place to start is by honestly looking at your current situation. The key is not to use your predicament as an opportunity to criticize yourself, but as a starting point for improvement in the years ahead. By intentionally setting a limit on the amount you’ll spend on decorations, gifts, food, etc… you’re less likely to overspend and more likely to avoid feeling financially overwhelmed during the most wonderful time of the year. If you’re already over-budget and swimming in financial strain, don’t sweat it! What’s done is done. The best thing you can do is use this as a learning experience for next year and beyond.

With that in mind, I find that planning ahead is often the best way to navigate any budget. Once you’ve determined a comfortable amount that won’t strain your finances – and you can do this as early as January – you’ll have an entire year to purchase thoughtful gifts for family and friends, on your terms. You can take advantage of sales throughout the year or simply be open to discovering the perfect gift for that special someone. By planning ahead and giving yourself plenty of time to find just the right gift, you’ll have more time to enjoy being with family when the holidays finally arrive. Instead of rushing around the mall at the last minute or spending a fortune on over-night shipping, you can relish the charm of the season and enjoy time spent with loved ones.

Good luck! Wishing you a happy and financially healthy holiday season!

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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Five Gas Saving Travel Tips for the Holidays

It’s that time of year again- entertaining, eating too much, and lots of travel.  Marshall Doney, AAA president and CEO, stated in a recent press release that over 46 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from their home this Thanksgiving.  The chart below shows that gas prices are actually in our favor for traveling this Thanksgiving.

Here are five easy ways to save on fuel prices – not just for the holidays, but all the time!

2012-2015_Avg-Gas-Prices-11-23-15

    1. Drive the more fuel efficient car.  Many people jump to taking the family car with the most leg room and luggage space.  Perhaps take this opportunity to assess your packing and squeeze into the smaller more fuel efficient car.
    2. Lighten the load.  Take an inventory of what’s in your car.  By having a heavier car you use more fuel.  Take off the roof rack that you don’t plan on using this winter and empty out the trunk, leaving only the necessities.
    3. Get a tune up.  Consider getting your car serviced before taking off this holiday season.  The better shape your car is in, the more fuel you will save.
    4. Go back to driver’s ed.  Take this time to remember the basics of driving.  Accelerate slowly, eliminate aggressive braking and speeding.  All of these things lead to increased fuel cost.
    5. Find cheaper gas prices.  GasBuddy is my favorite app for this purpose.  You can use this to find the cheapest prices on your route.

Every penny counts when trying to stick to a budget to meet your long-term goals!

Ashley Gragtmans, CFP®
Financial Advisor

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The Power of Spending Choices

While it’s still well ahead of the official holiday season, a recent email got me thinking about what really drives my spending habits. My sister messaged our family a week ago asking if we were planning to buy presents for the kids this Christmas. I love my nieces and nephews but they are eight in number with at least one more on the way. Buying each one of them a birthday present reflective of their unique personalities is a delight, but as their numbers have grown, holiday shopping has become a little less joyful (‘tis the season) and definitely more stressful.

After the email arrived I knew immediately what I wanted to do – not buy Christmas presents. Only it wasn’t so easy to type those words back. So I waited. Everyone else had responded in the affirmative, but I held back. I felt torn between what I thought I should do and what I knew I wanted to do: enjoy the holiday season with family, minus the gift-giving.

After a little inner conflict and a healthy dose of anxiety, I realized that my desire to not offend, to maintain a magnanimous image, and to avoid the dreaded Scrooge moniker, prevented me from telling my financial truth. I saw that it wasn’t the criticism or praise from others that I was trying to avoid or earn; it was my own inner critic that I was trying to please.

With this newfound awareness, I discovered that not only does this happen at the holidays, but throughout the year! My misguided sense of propriety often influences my spending habits, in a way that is not always aligned with what I really value. Instead, when I notice and promptly ignore my inner critic’s arbitrary rules and demands, it frees me up to spend in a way that’s more aligned with what I really value — like retirement and that future trip to Paris I’ve been planning.

I bit the bullet and told my sisters that I would no longer buy Christmas presents for the kids. It turns out that none of my family criticized me for my decision. This non-reaction was even more proof that my own thoughts and fears – not other people – were behind my financial misalignment.

While some people may not react as well as my family did, when we stop worrying about other peoples’ reactions to our spending choices, they will have less of an impact. We’ll see them for what they are – simply other peoples’ reactions. In the meantime, giving ourselves a break, internally, frees up a lot more clarity to spend in alignment with what feels right. And I can’t think of a better holiday gift!

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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NPR Report on Excessive Fees

Investors have a strong desire to be good stewards of their retirement funds. This often includes seeking out professionals for financial advice.  For the retirement plan sponsor, the Department of Labor (DOL) is helping by creating fee disclosure rules and requirements.  A few years ago, the DOL mandated fee disclosure rule (404(a)5) in an effort to ensure plan sponsors are able to determine if the fees for services rendered are “reasonable.”

NPR ran a story this morning about excessive 401k fees.  See link here.  If I could add to this article, I would suggest plan sponsors review their plan fees and services at least every couple of years, if not more often through a fee benchmarking process.  The generated report should give plan sponsors a general idea of how their plan compares to others of similar size.  Benchmarking has other benefits as well.  Not only will this help to uncover fees and what services are being provided, but also some service providers are willing to re-price their services to lower fees.

While many thought the disclosure rules were a bright spot in a dark corner, we feel that further disclosure and transparency is warranted in this industry.  Since not all advisors are the same, we are thankful that the DOL has re-proposed a Fiduciary Rule which seeks to make anyone giving investment advice to 401k/retirement plans (and also IRAs) to act in the account holder’s best interest.  For RIAs like Parsec, it is business as usual.  However, broker-dealers may have a bit more difficulty with this rule, as they operate under something called a suitability standard.  While not to debate the virtues of the fiduciary standard versus the suitability standard, we do feel that greater disclosure is a good thing and will ultimately drive costs down even further.

Neal Nolan, CFP®
Director of ERISA, Financial Advisor

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Time for an Economic Sabbath?

After feeling somewhat exasperated while watching a reputable financial news program last week, an idea occurred to me: we need to re-introduce the Sabbath. Not in the religious sense of the word, but as a general day of rest from financial or economic progress. The notion struck me after hearing a reporter express dismay over a softer-than-expected read on some monthly economic data point. While I realize the media is paid based on viewer ratings and that doom-and-gloom stories attracts more attention than upbeat forecasts, it would still be nice to acknowledge what’s going right every now and then. And I think it would also be beneficial.

As everyone knows, our market system is based on capitalism. Lesser known is that we’re in a period of what’s called “growth capitalism.” But this hasn’t always been the case. Merchants only started tracking growth metrics during the Industrial Revolution, according to the book, “The Economics of Good and Evil.” Capitalism, as defined by my Google search, is an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.   Notice that there’s no mention of the word “growth”. Now, I’m all in favor of growth, but with purpose and ideally, some periods of rest. Because growing all the time without set-backs, pauses, and most importantly, reflection, is unsustainable at best and dangerous at worst.

Dangerous because if growth must be achieved at all costs, debt often results as an unintended consequence. When nations and even individuals feel the need to grow for the sake of growth, they often go to extreme measures, often taking out more debt to meet unrealistic targets. For nations who have an independent Treasury, they are able to manufacture more paper money and at least temporarily out-run mounting debt levels. Individuals aren’t so fortunate – or are we? Knowing we can’t manufacture our own currency out of thin air, most individuals curb spending and debt issuance and work to live within their means. We ideally accumulate rainy-day savings funds for when growth naturally slows down or declines, i.e. a job loss or unexpected expense comes up.

But back to a financial or economic Sabbath. It seems in our modern-day society where growth is the undisputed law of the land we frequently fail to appreciate what is going right. We’re so afraid of not hitting the mark that we neglect to notice job growth is on the rise, unemployment is pretty darn low, and the housing market is on the mend. Sure there are plenty of problems that need attention, but acknowledging and even appreciating our relatively healthy economy in no way negates the problems. I would argue that focusing on what’s working and improving actually gives us more energy and capacity to better work with prevailing problems.

Finally, instituting a financial or economic Sabbath, if even on an individual level, allows us to shift from a deficit mentality to one of “enough.” As I reflected on the financial news program that got me thinking about a Sabbath, I realized that having to always meet certain growth targets implies a belief that our current situation is not okay, i.e. a deficit mentality. And interestingly, this mentality is prevalent at a time when debt as a percent of GDP has never been higher. It seems we’re creating what we fear the most – a big ole’ deficit.

Fortunately, things aren’t as bad as the media would have us believe and it’s not too late to stop and smell the flowers. Individually taking stock of what is working and how much we do have (we live during the wealthiest period in the history of the world) can start to reverse our collective deficit mentality and maybe turn the tide towards sustainable, purpose-driven growth.

 

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Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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Medicare Jump

As a result of low inflation during the past year, it appears that there will not be a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) applied to 2015 Social Security Benefits for the 2016 year. This is only the 3rd time in the past 40 years this has occurred. Because there will be no 2016 COLA, it enacts an obscure provision in the Medicare laws which prevents Medicare premium increases in a year in which there is no COLA. However, Medicare is required to pay for a part of its funding through beneficiary premiums. This means that approximately 70% of Medicare beneficiaries will be “held harmless” and will not experience a premium increase. However, the other 30% made up of non-exempt beneficiaries and new enrollees will endure all of the premium increases.

For tax year 2014, those whose modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is greater than $85,000 filing as individuals or $170,000 filing as couples do not fall in the “hold harmless category” and are subject to premium surcharges on a graduated scale from 42 percent to more than 200 percent (see below chart). Others not protected by the hold-harmless rule include those who do not have Medicare Part B premiums deducted from their Social Security benefits. This includes individuals who are delaying Social Security benefits even if they are enrolled in Part B — e.g., many who elect to delay or “file and suspend” their Social Security benefits. Those individual’s Medicare Part B premiums may increase regardless of family income.

Medicare Jump-table

These are huge premium increases, and we recognize that this will have a major impact on many of our client’s annual medical spending. The good news is that the Medicare Trustees anticipate this increase to be a one-year phenomenon with premiums returning to a normalized level in 2017. However, we anticipate that increases in Medicare premiums will rise faster than COLA increases provided by the Social Security Administration over the coming years. For this reason, we plan with our clients for medical costs rising faster than broad market inflation to ensure that they will have adequate spending power necessary to maintain a high level of medical care. If you have questions about your own Medicare coverage, let your advisor know. Medicare is an important part of every retirees financial plan.

Daniel Johnson III, CFP®
Financial Advisor

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What’s Up (or down) with Commodities?

While stocks have been front-and-center lately given sharp price swings, fewer media outlets are focusing on commodities despite the critical role they play in global markets. They too have experienced wild price swings, although mostly to the downside. Year-to-date, the widely held S&P GSCI (Goldman Sachs Commodity Index) has fallen 20% and declined 41% over the last twelve months. What’s driving these big declines and why do they matter to your portfolio?

Commodities are defined as a raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold. This includes everything from aluminum to zinc, but also oil, natural gas, coffee, beef, and corn, among others. A key differentiator between commodities and other assets are that commodities are valuable only as an input of the production process. They’re not a store of value or wealth, like a stock, bond, or work of art. Because of their utilitarian purpose (with a few exceptions like gold), commodity prices are closely linked to global supply and demand. Simply put, when demand is strong for a commodity and supply is tight, prices go up. Likewise, when demand is falling and/or supply is abundant, commodity prices tend to fall. This causes prices to be very cyclical and closely tied to the health of the overall economy. In an increasingly globalized world, that means all economies affect commodity prices to varying degrees.

While stocks have surged over the past six years, commodities have languished. The widely-held commodity index, the S&P GSCI, has fallen 35% from 2009 to 2014 while the S&P 500 Index rose 131%. As U.S. stocks benefited from improving economic growth at home, commodities never saw a similar bounce-back given their exposure to the broader global backdrop. Lackluster global demand and excess supply of many commodities weighed on commodity prices. The supply/demand imbalance has worsened recently as China, the world’s largest consumer of commodities, has seen economic conditions deteriorate and is curbing its appetite for input products. Likewise, it continues to produce too much supply and is dumping some commodities, like steel, onto global markets, further pressuring prices. It’s a vicious cycle, one that usually reverses when excess supply is finally worked-off and most investors have given up on the asset class.

As an investor, where does this leave you? Should you include commodities in your portfolio? Is now a good time to buy? According to Dr. Rouwenhorst, a leading expert on commodities, research suggests that commodities do outpace inflation over the long-term. And he’s looked at data going back to the 1800’s. At the same time, commodity prices tend to have low correlations with other asset classes like stocks and bonds; meaning that when stocks go down, commodities tend to go up. Thus, adding commodities to a portfolio can help improve your overall volatility and gives you a good chance of out-pacing inflation.   But…we’ve also learned that during massive global crises, like the one in 2008, commodities tend to move in lock-step with other asset classes. People panic and tend to sell everything. We’ve also seen substantial price declines in most commodities over the last six years, and if you’ve owned these assets you know your portfolio has suffered as a result. What to do?

During most periods, a small position in a diversified basket of commodities such as the S&P GSCI or the Dow Jones Commodity Index can help insulate investors from wild swings in traditional asset classes like stocks and bonds. And commodities can experience periods of strong price appreciation. However, it’s difficult to identify those periods and at the same time, avoid sharp declines like we’ve seen in recent years. If you have a long enough time horizon, of twenty years or more, a small allocation to commodities can make sense, but another option is to own high-quality stocks that derive their revenue from commodities. While these companies are also subject to the cyclical nature of commodities, they often have diversified revenue streams and strong balance sheets that can help provide some insulation during cyclical downturns.

Overall, commodities are important to understand in order to gauge the health of the global economy. Although they tend to be a volatile asset class, owning a small amount can provide diversification benefits in your portfolio. Another and perhaps less volatile option is to own high-quality blue chip companies that deal in commodities and have the resources to weather cyclical downturns. This approach also provides the diversification benefits associated with commodities but often with smaller price swings then owning a basket of commodities directly.

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The “What” of Retirement Planning

Most working-age Americans focus on the “how” of retiring: how to maintain a decent standard of living today while saving enough money for retirement tomorrow, or how to play catch-up and cover their retirement savings shortfall. Sadly, another group of Americans wonder “if” they’ll be able to retire at all. The sobering statistics tell a bleak tale. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the average 50-year old has just $42,797 in retirement savings while 38% of Americans have no savings at all. This is scary stuff considering that average medical costs alone for an individual over 65 years old are north of $100,000. Clearly we’re not as prepared for retirement as we could be. Despite lots of media doom-and-gloom about the pending retirement crisis, it hasn’t improved retirement savings trends. Thus, I’d like to propose a new approach, one that focuses on the “what” of retirement planning instead of the “how.”

The “what” of retirement planning involves an intentional mental shift, one that approaches the retirement conundrum from a new angle. Instead of focusing on how much more you need to save or how far behind you are versus your peers, try imaging what you want your years in retirement to look like. What new hobbies would you like to explore in retirement? Or what countries do you want to visit? Etc… This approach, coupled with an honest assessment of your current situation, is more likely to help you reach your goals than beating yourself over the head.

Focusing on the problem or what’s missing can increase stress levels and sap your energy – because you need more energy to help manage those higher stress levels. It can also lead to financial paralysis, which only exacerbates the problem and reinforces our old, unhelpful patterns – ensuring we get what we fear the most: not enough retirement savings. In contrast, anchoring your goal to the positive end result – your vision of a relaxing, meaningful retirement – can increase the odds of realizing that reality. Either way, you’ll feel a whole lot better on your journey there.

The point is to look carefully at the way in which you approach your retirement goals, because the methods you use will help determine your success rate. It all starts with taking an honest and sometimes difficult look at your current situation and determining what your goals are. Once you know where you are and where you’d like to be in the future, crafting a plan of action that will reinforce helpful, constructive habits is key. This brings me to one of my favorite quotes from St. Teresa of Avila, “The whole way to heaven is heaven itself.” A lifetime of berating ourselves is unlikely to lead to financial bliss in our twilight years. It will probably just lead to more stress and anxiety. Instead, it seems we’re better off focusing on “heaven” in the here and now. We can do that with a proactive, realistic plan that’s anchored on the positive feelings we’d like to experience in our retirement years. And who knows, we might even start to feel better today.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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Ways to Cut Wedding Costs

I’m getting married this year, and I couldn’t be more excited . . . about getting married, not necessarily about planning the wedding. The process can be stressful and overwhelming – the organization, details, responsibility, and not least of all, cost.

As a financial planner I’ve thought a lot about the cost of this important day. A quick Google search reveals that the average amount of money spent on a wedding in the United States is over $30,000. It’s not like the old days where fathers paid men a dowry to marry their daughters (thankfully). While both of our families are helping us on wedding cost, we still need to pony up quite a bit of cash on our own. I did not want to start off this next phase of my life in debt.

Through my planning I’ve come across a number of ways that people have saved money on their wedding. While I didn’t choose all of these options, I think they’re all worth considering.  If you know someone who’s planning on tying the knot soon, you may want to share these ideas with them: 

  • Cut the guest count.I’ve experienced night sweats on who to invite to my wedding. I wake up thinking: “They invited me;” “She’s my second cousin twice removed;” or “What about my best friend from kindergarten?” A recent survey by theknot.com shows that it costs over $200 per guest at a wedding. That’s right – over $30,000 for just 150 people! Try to limit your guest to friends, immediate family, grandparents, close aunts and uncles, and close cousins. People will understand you can’t invite everyone.
  • DIY.This isn’t for me, but it is for a lot of people. I’m not overly handy or creative, nor do I have the patience for doing anything myself on my big day. However, if you are that type of person, you should do as much as you can on your own. Try printing your own invites and save-the-dates cards. Research sites like Etsy to get ideas. Pick a creative family member to help decorate for your rehearsal dinner; have a girlfriend do your hair. Every little bit that you can do yourself (or others can do) will save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Maybe a friend’s participation could be given in lieu of a gift.
  • Don’t be so traditional.More of my friends are not getting married on Saturday. In most cases they are moving to Friday and Sunday where wedding vendors and venues don’t charge the same premium as a Saturday wedding. Also, think lunch reception and maybe not a sit-down, four-course evening meal.  Or, you could just do a champagne toast and appetizers and cut out early for the honeymoon 😉.
  • Pick a season and stick with it.Try to purchase decorations, flowers, and food that are in season. If you are trying to get Birds of Paradise or sunflowers in the dead of winter, you will pay for it. You can save a lot by having a Christmas wedding because most venues are already decorated. Another option is to try for a spring wedding when everything outside is blooming. If you are planning your meal options, do a sautéed veggie option with items that are in season.
  • Bundle. Try bundling items to cut down cost. For example, instead of having a cake and party favors, maybe have a candy station for people to grab something on their way out the door. This way, you still have sweets and favors, but you’re cutting the expense down by really having one.  If you have something around the house that you can use as your guest book, do it! I’ve seen people use globes from a bookshelf to sign, as well as old corn hole boards that were painted with the wedding colors.
  • Keep it casual. Buffets may not give the same vibe as a plated meal, but it’s a lot cheaper. If you really don’t want people to wait in line for food, then try doing family style. This is a bit more expensive but doesn’t come with the extra cost of servers.
  • Hire a coordinator.  This goes against the DIY bullet, but you can save money in the long run. Most wedding planners have discounts and perks arranged with partners and vendors… but be wary and do your research before hiring someone to plan for you.
  • Do everything memorable early. Try to get the bouquet toss and cake cutting out of the way early. If you do everything memorable first thing, you can let your photographer and videographer leave early to cut down on their hourly time. Your guests will continue to snap pictures throughout the night.
  • Buy someone else’s wedding. This may sounds crazy, but sadly, many people cancel their wedding every day. Most deposits are already put down and can’t be returned. Decorations have been bought, and gifts have been purchased.  Check out http://www.bridalbrokerage.com/to purchase someone else’s unfulfilled day.

Finally, the number one way to save money… ELOPE! Have a quick wedding, a potluck in the backyard, good conversation and s’mores by the fire, and call it a good day!

Good luck on planning your special day!

Ashley Woodring, CFP®
Financial Advisor

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THE GREEK MESS WON’T HURT THE US ECONOMY

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has performed a valuable public service by publishing a detailed “Debt Sustainability Analysis” for Greece on July 2. While this document is written in typically dry “bureaucratese,” it lays bare the failure of the strategy of “kicking the can down the road” that the other Euro Zone countries have been using with Greece for the past five years.

Dr. Carl Weinberg is Chief Economist at High Frequency Economics and a veteran of the mostly successful Brady Plan debt restructuring program of 1989-1992. Those negotiations took debt loads that were impossible and restructured them, in a manner similar to the way failing corporations are restructured in the US. Brady Plan deals were worked out for Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Mexico (the first one in 1989-1990), Nigeria, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Uruguay, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Dr. Weinberg suggests that the €323 billion ($358.3 billion) Greek debt be restructured into bonds with a maturity of 100 years, a coupon (interest) rate of 5.0 percent and a 25-year grace period before the first payment is due. This would give Greece “breathing room” and would keep all its creditors (primarily the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the IMF) from having to take a “haircut” on their holdings of Greek debt.

Not very surprisingly, the IMF analysis does not go this far. However, it rather drily suggests that extending the grace period to 20 years and the amortization period to 40 years (an effective doubling of each) together with new financing, would barely be adequate.

Greek voters went to the polls on July 5 in a hastily arranged referendum to vote “yes” or “no” on accepting terms from the creditors that were withdrawn on June 30. Thus, it’s not really clear what they were voting on. The wording in the ballot was also very confusing. It read: “Should the draft agreement submitted by the EC, ECB, IMF to the eurogroup on June 25, which consists of two parts that make up their full proposals, be accepted? The first document is titled, ‘Reforms for the Completion of the Current Program and Beyond’ and the second ‘Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.’”

Despite that convoluted wording (it can’t possibly be any clearer in Greek), the 62.5 percent of voters who turned out gave a victory by a 61.3-38.7 percent margin to all those wishful thinking people who believe that reality won’t triumph. Greece is being kept afloat by the ECB. If they stop doing that, the banks will all be bankrupt. No one knows where this disaster will go.

Now the creditors need to follow the IMF recommendations, which include another €60 billion ($66.5 billion) of new money through 2018. This is in addition to the restructuring of all the existing debt.

Like so many economic problems in the world, the Greek mess will be finally resolved when there are no other options. If Greece were to leave the Euro Zone (a terribly complicated exercise), it would be hit with horrendous inflation and an even bigger collapse of the economy that the 25.0 percent decline it has already experienced since 2009.

Greece needs debt relief. It also needs to reform its ridiculous pension system to conform to those of the rest of the Euro Zone and figure out ways to collect taxes that are owed.

The Greek economy is about $200 billion a year in real GDP. That’s close to Alabama ($199.4 billion in 2014) or Oregon ($215.7 billion). Both are 1.2 percent of the US total.

A failure to follow something like the prescriptions of the IMF or Dr. Weinberg will condemn the Euro Zone to remain mired in a recession that began in the first quarter of 2008. Some people would argue that a recession lasting that long ought better be called a depression.

Either way, whatever happens to Greece is mainly a problem for the Euro Zone. It is simply too small an economy to have a major impact on the US. Most of whatever impact there might be would come through damage done to overall Euro Zone growth, rather than directly from Greece itself.

Dr.  James F. Smith, Chief Economist.

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