Is Greece the Lehman of 2012?

@lamonicabuzzMay 16, 2012: 1:03 PM ET
Many experts are bracing for a possible exit of Greece from the eurozone. But U.S. investors don't seem that concerned. Is that a mistake?

Many experts are bracing for a possible exit of Greece from the eurozone. But U.S. investors don't seem that concerned. Is that a mistake?

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- With apologies to John Lennon: Imagine a eurozone without Greece. It's easy if you try.

That seems to be Wall Street's tune these days. Sure, investors are worried about Europe. And they should be. But so far, the market is acting as if the recent turmoil in Greece is merely a repeat of last summer -- and not the second coming of 2008.


Stocks have pulled back from this year's earlier highs, but it's been a fairly orderly sell-off, not a full-blown panic.

That's just like a year ago. Investors were giddy in the first few months of 2011 until they came to grips with the fact that Europe's woes were not going to be solved overnight. But they also realized that Europe would not sink the entire global economy.

Flash forward a year and it still appears that the market is prepared for, and not afraid of, potentially nightmarish scenarios in Europe.

Many experts believe an eventual departure of Greece from the eurozone is already priced into stocks, bonds and currencies. The return of the drachma may not necessarily be analogous to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers -- especially since Greece's crisis has been playing out since early 2010.

"Is this a Lehman-like event? Banks and markets have been preparing for this for years," said John Canally, investment strategist for LPL Financial in Boston. "And the global economy is in a lot better place than it was in 2008."

That may be true. General Electric (GE, Fortune 500) seems to be sending a strong signal to the market that it's not too worried about another market meltdown.

GE announced Wednesday that its GE Capital financing arm will resume paying a dividend to the parent company for the first time since the worst of the crisis in 2009. Shares of GE rose nearly 4% on the news. Either GE is making a huge mistake or it is confident that Europe is not Lehman.

But what if a so-called Grexit is just the beginning and other troubled southern European nations soon follow? If Greece leaving the euro leads to a Portexit, Spexit and Itexit, that would be a major problem.

After all, Lehman was just one of many dominoes to fall in 2008. Washington Mutual failed. Wachovia nearly did before getting acquired by Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500). AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) needed a massive bailout. So did Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Still, some strategists think that Greece's woes could be isolated.

"The market should be expecting Greece to pull out. It's a matter of when, not if," said Sharon Stark, managing director and chief market strategist with Sterne Agee in Birmingham, Ala.

"Yes, Greece leaving the eurozone in the near term would cause an initial shock. But Spain and Italy are so important to the eurozone and global economy that the ECB and others will have to support them," she added.

Stark said that a Greek exit from the eurozone might be like last year's credit downgrade of the United States by Standard & Poor's. Even though it was painfully clear that the U.S. was going to lose its AAA status, stocks still plummeted on the first trading day after the rating cut. But the selling was short lived.

Others argue that it may not be that simple though.

"In a worse case scenario, if contagion spreads to Italy and Spain, and there is a large enough drop in the value of their debt, then the costs may be too large to rescue them and recapitalize European banks," said Dr. Robert Shapiro, chairman of Sonceon, an economic advisory firm in Washington.

Shapiro, who served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs in President Bill Clinton's administration, said the biggest problem is that it's still not clear just how much exposure big banks have to Europe.

That is similar to 2008. Once Lehman collapsed, it set off a chain of events that few saw coming because the credit default swap market is so murky and opaque.

"There are lot of people who could be caught by surprise and faced with large losses. We still don't know how many credit default swaps there are against European sovereign debt and the banks that hold them," he said.

Canally isn't concerned about contagion though. He actually thinks that Greece will wind up staying in the eurozone and begrudgingly accept more austerity.

But he cautions that the recent market slump may not be over just yet. The ultimate fate of Greece likely won't be resolved until the next round of elections on June 17.

"The markets around the globe are going to look a lot like they have the past ten days. It will be choppy, volatile and moving on a lot of rumors," he said.

Regardless of what happens to Greece, it would be a mistake to assume that Europe doesn't matter. Decoupling is still a myth. And Europe's economy likely faces more months, if not years, of pain that could hurt the U.S. too.

Europe is one of the reasons behind JPMorgan Chase's (JPM, Fortune 500) $2 billion "hedging" loss. Retailers Staples (SPLS, Fortune 500) and Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) both reported subpar quarterly sales Wednesday morning in part due to weakness in Europe. Even the mighty Facebook (FB) has said that ad pricing in Europe fell in the first quarter due to the debt crisis.

"The market seems to think there is now a divergence between the U.S. and Europe as well as the world economy in general. It's a little bit of an ignorance- is-bliss mentality," said Jeff Sica, president and chief investment officer of SICA Wealth Management in Morristown, N.J.

"We can't just disconnect from Europe. We are very much joined at the hip with Europe," Sica added.

Best of StockTwits: A Penney for your thoughts? Investors are passing after J.C. Penney (JCP, Fortune 500) reported a bigger-than-expected loss, a massive decline in same-store sales and also announced it was killing its dividend.

donaldpowell: Ouchy...RT @joshh031: 7% of $JCP float is held by dividend investors #oops

pdmuck: $JCP Oops. I guess Haggar khakis with adjustable waistband don't move as fast as iPads.

Kind of ironic that JCP CEO Ron Johnson left Apple for J.C. Penney. Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) will soon start paying a dividend, which means that all those income investors that had owned JCP for its 2.3% yield could soon flock to Apple instead.

TTGCapital: $JCP I love how people are so bullish on a stock simply because an Ackman or Icahn etc. maintain ownership.

The so-called "smart" money often gets it right. But gurus like Ackman, Icahn and even Warren Buffett make mistakes. Investors should never blindly follow billiionaires into a stock without doing their own research.

TALENTEDBLONDE: $JCP your customer doesnt WANT your pvt label product. The brand doesn't MEAN anything anymore. Hate to break the news but $JCP isnt $TGT.

Great point. I talked in today's Buzz video about how JCP's woes are not a sign of weakening consumer spending overall. Target's (TGT, Fortune 500) earnings and sales topped forecasts. Sell in May and go shop at Tar-jay?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks. To top of page

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