UPDATE: Why World Cup Bettors Are Smarter Than Bond Buyers
Update: Two weeks ago, TIME's Bill Saporito used the lens of the global bond market to accurately predict that Germany (arguably the world's best-run economy) would be facing off this weekend against Argentina (one of the worst) in the final of the World Cup. We're resurfacing his piece in the belief that readers would want another look at Saporito's prognostication prowess. Here it is:
In soccer, Argentina is a global power. Ranked 5th in the world and featuring among its host of stars the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, it is one of the teams that can threaten Brazil’s march to the World Cup title.
In financial circles, on the other hand, Argentina is to a functioning economy what the Faroe Islands are to football. A bit of a joke. A doormat. Indeed, last week the U.S. Supreme Court slide tackled Argentina as it tried to dribble past some American investors who are demanding to be paid, in full, the interest due on their Argentine bonds. Having convinced other creditors to go along with a deal—part of a broader effort to right the economy after years of mismanagement--the Argentinians wanted to force the American investors to eat some losses as well. The Supremes blew the whistle on that.
This raises a question, albeit one more likely to be debated in bars off Wall Street than on the beaches of Rio: Are you better off betting on a country's bonds, or on its soccer team? With Argentina, the answer seems clear: The country's chances of paying off its sovereign debt in full appear to be inversely proportional to the odds of its football team winning the World Cup, where it was a 4-to-1 pre-tournament favorite in Las Vegas. Argentinian debt, meanwhile, has a yield of about 13%, reflecting a risk premium that only Nigeria approaches among World Cup finalists. In short, betting on Messi may be the saner play.
With global interest rates so low in a world awash in liquidity, you'd think more global investors would reach a similar conclusion -- but in many cases you'd be wrong. Investors ought to be yellow-carded: Their quest for yield is leading to crazier behavior in the market than on the pitch. Italy is a prime example. Punters pegged Italy, one of footballing's great nations, as a 20-to-1 long-shot to win the World Cup. They got it right, too, considering Italy’s early exit after a controversial loss to Uruguay. But the Italian economy is a lot worse than the Azzurri. It's still mired in its economic past, and where young people are stifled in finding work. Still, Italy’s bonds offer a measly 2.92%, only about 30 basis points higher than the 2.61% for U.S. Treasuries.
The U.S. team, on the other hand, went off as a 100-to-1 shot; ironically, we’re still considered a third-world nation on the soccer field, despite advancing to the knockout round of the World Cup again. With its strong (if heartbreakingly inconsistent) play so far, the U.S. team's odds are now down to 40-to-1 to win the Cup. Still, the market is telling us to bet the bonds, not the team, and it's probably right.
Soccer bettors seem to have longer memories than investors do. When the latter look at the histories of Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and even France, it’s as though these nations have never defaulted, devalued, or restructured over the last couple of centuries. Compare Spain and Brazil, for example. Brazil's bonds are yielding 4.22% while Spain's offer a relatively paltry 2.76%, even though Spain’s economy is a shambles. True, Brazil has also struggled of late, but it has oil, youth, and seemingly higher growth prospects. And unlike Spain, it has major export industries in agriculture and aerospace -- not to mention soccer players.
The place where the football bettors and investors correlate more closely is Germany: The former had 5-to-1 odds early on, the latter a 1.38% yield. True, German economic history is not untroubled, but today it is Europe’s champion economy -- the strength of which goes a long way toward explaining why European bond rates in general have remained so low. Germany is, in effect, propping up the rest of the European economy. After today's shutout against the U.S., however, it looks clear that die Mannschaft won't do anything of the sort on the soccer pitch. If the form plays out, one of the world’s best-run economies will face off with one its worst.