Is Germany in Worse Shape Than the U.S.?

I'm a homer and I love my country -- but we're also about as fiscally responsible as a teenager on spring break with dad's credit card. The United States debt ceiling continues to be breached as the nation now sports more than $14 trillion in debt. Yet for all the shortcomings in the United States, Germany may actually have more to worry about than we do.

Germany has a lot riding on the line when it comes to the European sovereign debt crisis. It's projected that the country's exposure to Greece and Portugal stands at $37 billion and $47 billion, respectively, with considerably higher amounts of exposure to Spain and Italy. If you recall, Spain has been dealing with more than 200 basis-point spreads recently compared to the German 10-year bond, which is making borrowing more difficult.

Burning down the house
Credit default swaps -- an instrument similar to insurance that financial institutions employ in an attempt to generate a handsome return if a debtor, in this case an entire country, is unable to meet its debt obligations -- have been rising rapidly in the eurozone. Greece's CDS number currently projects a 75% chance of a credit default, while Spain's CDS number indicates a 17% chance of default. Germany's have actually dropped since December, and it's extremely difficult to figure out why, especially considering the move the German government took two weeks ago in banning the naked buying of credit-default swaps.

Trust me, I do see the reasoning behind the German government's decision to choose to essentially ban the naked short selling of its government debt. But I also see the move as completely self-fulfilling.

The naked CDS ban, which will be in effect until the end of March 2012, only encompasses financial institutions within the EU's borders -- Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank (NYSE: DB  ) , to name two. Nothing would prevent JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) or Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) from continuing to make a market in German CDSes.

I also feel this move reinforces the belief from Germany that it anticipates more bailouts ahead. Although the CDS market is very thinly traded, billions of dollars do exchange hands between financial institutions daily. Rather than risk having its country "piled on" by a few financial institutions betting on an imminent German calamity, it instead chose to simply remove that variable from the equation. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this isn't a smart move, but I question the motive behind the move made two weeks ago.

A long way to go
By my guess, we're only in the third inning of the nine-inning eurozone debt crisis and plenty is left to be decided. I'm not in any way, shape, or form saying that Germany belongs in the same class as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, because it clearly doesn't, but it seems apparent to me that things aren't as peachy-keen in Germany as I once thought.

Am I overreacting to Germany's potential troubles, here, or does it really have a lot to worry about? Set the story straight by posting your thoughts in the comments box below.

Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong. The Motley Fool owns shares of JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that prefers fully clothed bets to naked bets.


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  • Report this Comment On June 03, 2011, at 6:22 AM, bourse wrote:

    Thanks for this good article!

    Germany's problem is the very expensive welfare state and its unability to reform public spending.

    So today "to save money" for the government got an new meaning: to generate more income by higher or even new taxes!

    No one cuts spending!

    Tax burden is very high and young professionals are leaving the country.

    The European debt problem is not limited to Greece.

    Greece is only the worst example.

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