As if it's not bad enough that the U.S. has financial troubles, we also have to keep hearing about the debt crisis in Europe and how that's making life more difficult. Debt became such a major issue in Greece and Portugal, for example, that both countries were bailed out - Greece about a year ago and Portugal very recently - by the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund. Whether the aid will be enough to restore the two countries to financial health remains yet to be seen.
TUTORIAL: Forex Currencies: The EUR/USD
As bad as this all seems, there's an upside: The European debt crisis is actually benefiting Americans in some ways. It's certainly boosting U.S. stocks, especially big household names such as Kraft and Johnson & Johnson, among others. Kraft, for example, is up around 11% this year, while Johnson & Johnson has risen around 9%. The S&P 500, an index that tracks the combined performance of the 500 largest U.S. companies, is up around 5%.
Investors are flocking to companies like these because of their reputation as safer havens from economic woes like the crisis in Europe. A major benefit of increased investment in the U.S. is it raises our odds of a sustainable economic recovery. (For more, see 5 Economic Reports That Affect The Euro.)
The European debt crisis has at least four other benefits for Americans. These include:
Low Interest Rates
Though there's been concern that the Federal Reserve will move too soon to quell inflation by raising interest rates, Europe's debt problems make it more likely the Fed will leave rates at their historic lows to help promote global economic stability. In fact, that's just what the Fed has been doing. Thus, Americans are enjoying lower interest rates on their credit cards, mortgages and other types of debt. (For related reading, see Forces Behind Interest Rates.)
Relief at the Pump
The debt crisis in Europe has helped keep gas prices down by prompting risk-averse investors to reduce their oil holdings and seek less volatile investments, resulting in lower oil prices. Shrinking energy demand in Europe has helped dampen oil prices, too. And of course, cheaper oil means cheaper gas. The price of gas has certainly gone up - the national average for a gallon of regular was $2.79 at this point last year. But without the turmoil in Europe, gas might be much more expensive than it is now. (For more, see Commodity Prices And Currency Movements.)
When a country or region is hurting financially like Europe, its currency becomes less valuable because investors and the public lose confidence in it. That's clearly the case for the euro, which has generally been weaker relative to the dollar during the past year than it was previously. How is that good for America? It lets us import European goods more cheaply, and we get a lot from Europe from food and clothes to cars and household items. (For more, see Do Cheap Imported Goods Cost Americans Jobs?)
More Affordable Travel
If you've always wanted to go to Europe, this would be a pretty good time to do it because of the weaker euro, which has fallen about 5% against the dollar this month. It's sort of like getting an automatic 5% discount on everything in Europe. Your U.S. dollars now go that much further there, simply because of a fluctuation in the value of the currency.
The Bottom Line
In finance and economics, there's often a good side to a bad situation - even with something as dreadful as a debt crisis. The crisis in Europe has prompted investment that could facilitate economic recovery in the U.S. and create opportunities for Americans to save money. It may even have created just the right conditions for that European vacation you've always wanted to take. (An undervalued currency means those same imports would experience higher prices in the United States. For more, see The Plaza Accord: The World Intervenes In Currency Markets.)