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Related topics: Bill Fleckenstein, currencies, bonds, Europe, Federal Reserve

Just before Thanksgiving, I held a contest for readers of my website, (subscription required), challenging them to provide the best definition for the term "funding crisis," a potential problem I have worried about since early 2009 -- and a consequence of bailing out the financial system.

I am becoming more convinced that the various elements of a funding crisis will be picking up the pace and intensity sooner, rather than later, and they may well be the most important factors to consider with regard to investment decisions in 2011.

Before delving deeper into this topic, I would like to share a slightly trimmed-down version of the winning reader's submission:

High definition

A funding crisis refers to the inability of a country to finance itself without resorting to outright money-printing. This can lead to a vicious cycle of currency depreciation, rising interest rates, poor economic performance and poor investor sentiment, all of which feed on each other in a downward spiral. A funding crisis can end when proper monetary and fiscal discipline is restored, usually at the expense of severe economic hardship."

I have been using the term "funding crisis" regularly since the fall of 2008, and I penned the following definition in May 2009:

"If the dollar is called into question . . . and if the Fed's monetization cannot lower rates (and in fact causes them to rise, due to the consequences of money printing), then the Fed is trapped. The more it tries to solve the problem with money printing, the worse it all becomes."

Not to labor excessively over defining terms, but I think it is critical for investors to be able to identify the signs of a funding crisis.

To do that, they need to know what it means in the financial world -- in this case, the bond market, an arena that can be confusing to follow.

The key concept to understand is that a funding crisis occurs when the appetite of debt buyers (that is, bond buyers, aka lenders) for what the debt seller has to offer falls off significantly, or when potential buyers will risk lending the money (buying the bonds) only at a much higher interest rate.

Thus, a funding crisis is very much the free market's assessment of the debt seller's financial state of affairs.

For a real-world example, look no further than Greece's funding crisis earlier this year. In April, yields on Greek two-year bonds climbed to more than 13%, after being under 5% the month before. This means that people who owned Greek bonds lost a huge chunk of their value.

Image: Bill Fleckenstein

Bill Fleckenstein

An audible from the ECB

More recently, of course, we have seen a similar situation in Ireland, where yields on 10-year Irish government bonds jumped from about 6% in early November to almost 9.5% near the end of the month. Keep in mind, though, that the predicament in both Greece and Ireland was, and still is, different from what the U.S. will face. Those countries can't print euros, while we can print dollars.

As events were unfolding a couple of weeks ago, I was in Europe having dinner with a friend, the source I've dubbed the Lord of the Dark Matter. I asked him how long it would take before Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank, would decide to print enough euros to keep the currency from collapsing altogether (as perverse as that sounds). He surprised me by replying: "About three days" (i.e., Dec. 1). I had assumed it would take more time.

As it turned out, Dec. 1 was the day Trichet indicated he was leaning toward following in the footsteps of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in buying more government bonds (although, as is often the case with the ECB, the nature and extent of its commitment are not exactly clear).

Bonds away

Much was made of that development, but the bigger news is that yields on U.S. government 10-year debt have risen about three-quarters of a percentage point (from 2.4% to 3.2%) since their lows in October. Thus, the combination of a crisis in Europe and the Fed's $600 billion bond-buying program, dubbed QE2, both of which could have been expected to force interest rates lower, instead produced the opposite result.

The action of the bond market is a sea change and to me suggests that it has seen a top.

In other words, bond buyers now want a higher interest rate to compensate them for the risk of future inflation and/or a weak dollar. Thus they have collectively voted a big "no mas" with their wallets regarding U.S. Treasury debt, just as they did with Greece and Ireland.

That is one reason Bernanke made an unusual appearance on the Dec. 5 edition of "60 Minutes," in which he defended QE2 -- and in doing so made the outlandish statement that the Fed was "not printing money."

Less than two years earlier, in March 2009, he had described the first round of quantitative easing as printing money.