March 28, 2013 at 06:27 AM EDT
Some Perspective on Sovereign Debt from the Home of the World’s Oldest Stock Exchange

World’s Oldest Stock ExchangeIf you go to Europe and you find yourself in Holland (the Netherlands), you’ll likely fly through Schiphol Airport on the edge of Amsterdam. It’s one of the best airports in the world, in my humble opinion. When you go through security, you are treated like a paying customer—which you are. The euro currency has become a lot more affordable for obvious reasons.

I visited Europe and Holland, specifically, in 2011 to visit my great-uncle’s war grave at the Begraafplaats Crooswijk cemetery in Rotterdam. It is a strikingly beautiful cemetery. The Dutch do a masterful job of maintaining war graves. Thank you.

My trip was subsidized by an old college buddy who has a huge (for Europe) apartment in Amsterdam. It’s the best location in town. In his job, he is the second-most powerful person on ING Group’s trading floor. He is the information technology (IT) guy.

Amsterdam is one of the most unique cities I’ve ever been to (ahem, not for those reasons). It is one of Europe’s top destinations (perhaps for those reasons).It boasts stunning architecture and is home to the world’s oldest stock exchange. The NYSE Euronext N.V. is Amsterdam’s stock exchange today.

Amsterdam was the financial center of the world a long time ago, centuries before the euro. Apparently, the Dutch East India Company was the first multinational corporation and the Bank of Amsterdam was the first central bank. It financed the company in guilders, which eventually joined in creating the euro currency. The city is still a financial center in Europe, but history keeps repeating itself.

Like many banks in Europe, ING Group got itself into trouble during the financial crisis, and it received a 10-billion-euro bailout to bring up its capital reserves. The company has been shedding assets as part of its bailout terms. It plummeted on the stock market and is still way down. (See “The Fed’s Running the Show and Risk Keeps Going Up.”)

The euro is the second-largest reserve currency and the second-most traded. The euro has been under pressure since 2008, and the stability of the euro currency is the single greatest financial risk to your portfolio this year.

Rotterdam looks out of place in Europe. The city was leveled by the Germans in World War II and had to be rebuilt from scratch. Taking the train there, no one came around to check tickets. I guess people travel on the honor system.

My great-uncle was Flight Sergeant Charles P. Miller, an air gunner whose bomber was shot down in WWII. He was 27. Along with the crew, he and fellow air gunner, Flight Sergeant C.M. MacDonald, 25, crashed into the ocean and washed up on Holland’s shore. They are buried beside each other, next to a large cenotaph of the cross, which is superimposed with a sword symbolizing military sacrifice.

This Easter, I wanted to use this space to tell their story and give thanks to those who serve, past and present. The problems in Europe are very real and the financial world is at risk, but thinking about these two airmen, it gives me perspective.

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