NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Markets are down around the world in reaction to the latest in the Greek debt crisis and investors are wondering what they should be doing. First, they should take another, closer look at the main players.
Imagine there's a man named Aristotle. He's not a bad guy really, but just a bit, you might say, disorganized. He often fails to pay his bills, is lax with his taxes, does not fully understand that when you borrow money it must be repaid in a timely fashion. He doesn't work particularly hard (he enjoys life in the plentiful sun), and sometimes he needs to indulge in not the straightest forms of business practices just to get by.
Meanwhile, there's another man named Goethe, who is generally a law-abiding citizen. He does usually pay his taxes, repays his debts and generally effects transactions at arm's length subject to the rule of law. There are no bright beaches where Goethe lives, so instead he works pretty hard.
Now let me ask you, would Goete want to get into a business partnership with Aristotle? Even if he wanted to, can he establish a stable relationship?
Well, cruel though it may be, you can substitute Goete for Germany and Aristotle for Greece. Why in other words would Germany want to be an economic partner of Greece? People will say the above cultural stereotypes are exaggerated, even unfair, or they may say there are historical reasons for Greece's troubled economic practices (linked to the long history of abuse of Greece by imperial powers).
However, causality is not the same as culpability. Greece (just like other failed states) must take responsibility for its actions at some point and cannot blame imperialism forever. The fact remains that culturally ingrained patterns of economic behavior in Greece (as compared say to Germany) make the former a highly inefficient economy relative to the latter.
So does all of this mean that sooner or later the Germans/French and other richer countries within the eurozone will force Greece out, or that Greece itself will simply chose to opt out given the austerity constraints imposed on it by other euro members? Well, matters seem to be coming to a head -- but it's still not clear. Yet another debt forbearance scheme of some kind may be emerging (perhaps). Now a referendum in Greece seems possible and meanwhile banks are closed and capital controls are being imposed. Greece may or may not stay in the euro, it may or may not stay in the European Union, and debt restructuring programs could continue for some time (or not).
All this crescendoed into some real market turmoil on Monday - a significant correction in S&P500 (over 2%) and in the Dow (just under 2%). So the big question for your average investor is how do you react to this deeply knotted puzzle? What portfolio adjustments do you make?
Well, in spite of some short term turbulence, the best answer is: It perhaps no longer matters very much. That is, it matters a great deal to the Greeks, but for most U.S. (or even non-Greek European) investors Greece has already been significantly taken out off the financial equation. Commentary from Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC) , Stifel Nicolaus, The Wall Street Journal and certain prominent fund managers has been making the same point.
Bank lending to Greece has materially been reduced over the last few years, and investors have for a while been steering well clear of Greek stocks and bonds. (The yield on the Greek two-year government security is now 21%!) The euro, which must surely take some battering if Greece leaves, has actually been strengthening against the greenback and even on Monday recovered from early falls. The bonds of countries peripheral to Greece had not seen much weakening until Monday, but Greece is probably just not large enough to trigger widespread contagion. The market has also been watching this crisis come for a very long time.
Lastly, extracting the Greek problem from the euro may in fact stabilize the currency after any initial shock. A full, long term Greek debt default could have some contagion or domino effect, but again, most believe it would now be limited on a global or long-term scale. The eurozone is, after all, in better economic shape then it was a few years ago. Investors might even buy on periodic dips caused by the crisis (like the one on Monday).
Thus, the Greek crisis probably doesn't require the average U.S. investor to do anything much at all. It really goes back to the original analogy between Aristotle and Goete.
How can anyone really be Aristotle's partner in an organized fashion currently? Well the international financial community has already, in its own way, largely terminated that partnership regardless of what happens in negotiations between the Greek Government, the European authorities and the International Monetary Fund.
If Greece had its own currency it would have heavily depreciated a long time ago because currencies are just "trust" embodied in paper (or today in computer blips). Instead, with that trust gone but no independent currency, wealthy Greeks just take their euros out of the country.
It is nonetheless very sad, and potentially catastrophic, for the Greeks themselves. Perhaps they need to turn back to some of their ancient heritage for guidance. Can they find wiser men to lead them in the future, transforming their economic culture over time? Can they find Plato's "philosopher kings" to rule over them if they do indeed leave the EU? Or perhaps as Alex Andreou has argued very sensitively in a recent article the Greeks should look to their own current resilience, not their past, "I abhor romanticized nationalism [re Greece]. All that is in our distant past. I look instead at our present. I look at the solidarity grassroots movements, which have sprung up to provide medical care for people who can no longer afford it or shelter for the thousands of Syrian refugees coming through our borders. I look at the cooperative factories and restaurants which have been born to provide people with jobs. I look at how families have pulled together and at how relatively firm the fabric of our society has held in the face of five years of onslaught."
Having said that (and going back to Greece's historic past), Socrates certainly would never have approved. He was punctilious about repaying his debts. Remarkably for a philosopher, his very last words before his forced suicide were, "Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius, please pay it and don't let it pass..." Perhaps Socrates' peculiar concern about his debts on his death bed was a prudential message for us all, in our atomized modern societies. If we all cared a bit more about our debts even after our own souls have departed, maybe we would have less deficits in the West generally. That is, we might stop spending future generations' money now.
Jeremy Josse is the author of Dinosaur Derivatives and Other Trades, an alternative take on financial philosophy and theory (published by Wiley & Co).