Thursday, March 4, 2010


There has been much written and spoken about the financial state of various countries, especially Greece at the moment. I received an email from a friend regarding a one page piece written by George Soros on the situation which on one hand offered a solution and on the other hand admitted the solution wouldn't work.

When I returned from the golf course, where I have successfully raised my handicap (it is easier than lowering it), I sent off this rambling reply.

As for the Soros piece, I am afraid the situation is too complicated and interrelated to address in a one pager. We appear to live in a world where the vast majority of the countries on the planet are overlevered by any measure and especially against GDP. Think of the situation as an industry where most of the players have too much debt and supply far outstrips demand (only much more complicated.)

The past two decades of globalized growth were fueled by easy and cheap credit which overstated global demand and inflated asset values as we all know now. Add to that the large recession we have been enduring (oh, that's right it is over, I forgot) and you get worldwide deleveraging of the consumer, albeit involuntarily, and unprecedented leveraging by governments to mitigate the short term effects of the recession.

The various governments had to print money (stimulus programs) to replace trillions of credit which disappeared due to the Lehman failure. (Please thank the US and UK governments for this.)

Some countries have and will blow up. See Iceland for a small but meaningful story of asset bubbles and overleverage. Following in short order, Dubai, Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Eastern European countries, Baltic countries and oh yea, Argentina which still has its leftover debt problems.

Behind the curtain is the UK. The UK has massive levels of consumer debt; much more than the US. This will restrain the consumer from spending and spurring the growth required to address the problem. The UK will have to push the pound down to import customers from other countries to be the UK's consumer. Good luck.

So, back to our troubled industry of broken countries (technical term). All these overleveraged countries need growth like troubled companies need sales. However, their infrastructures assume credit driven growth which isn't on the horizon. In fact they are all relatively shrinking as tax revenues have nose dived everywhere. As a result, they will have to cut expenses (read 'formerly essential services'). This will lead to anywhere from protests to riots (again see Iceland and Greece).

Interest rates are artificially low right now. Personally, I see this as a transfer of wealth from savers (getting nothing for their money) to borrowers (paying nothing for their money). These low interest rates have propped up asset values somewhat because 'what else can you do with your money?' if you have any. Asset values have also been propped up by convenient accounting changes to mark to market accounting which is further propping up commercial real estate and the banking industry.

Moreover, the current interest rates are not indicative of the true credit risk of these countries. The low rates are a stop gap to stop the recession (I forgot again that the recession is over). I see devaluations and hyperinflation in the future. This is the time honored way financially troubled countries deal with their debt when they can't pay back the debtholders.

Finally, the US continues to skate by as the biggest debtor nation on the planet (think the emperor with no clothes). Curiously, not only is there no plan in sight to reduce the debt, there isn't even a plan to stop the debt from growing. And this is the world's reserve currency? Only because all the other currencies are worse.

More to follow in the future.

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