Friday, 26 August 2011

09:30 – Colin loves sticks, and we always try to keep a “good stick” on hand. That is, one that’s solid wood and maybe a cm or two in diameter by 30 or 40 cm long. Yesterday, I let Colin off leash while I rolled the yard cart from the curb to the back yard and rolled the trash cart up to the curb. He ran around our and our neighbors’ back yards while I was doing that, and when he returned he didn’t have his good stick. So, while I was taking him for a walk, I looked for another good stick. I found what looked like an ideal candidate, but when I picked it up it was rotten and weighed next to nothing.

Which got me to thinking about Steve Jobs, who has just retired as CEO of Apple. Even with Jobs’ retirement, the value of Apple’s outstanding stock is still greater than the cumulative value of Europe’s 91 large banks. Like the stick I rejected, Europe’s banks appear solid but are actually rotten and lightweight.

The main problem is that those banks have huge exposure to Eurozone sovereign debt. Due to an accounting oddity, sovereign debt, regardless of its actual solidity, is always considered to be default-proof, and so is carried on balance sheets at nominal value. The reality is very different, of course. A bank that holds, say, €1 billion of Greek sovereign debt even now carries that debt on its balance sheet as a €1 billion asset. Current yields on 2-year Greek debt are getting very close to 50%, which means that debt should be written down on balance sheets to a small fraction of nominal, if not written off entirely. But the banks haven’t done that, for Greek, Portuguese, and Irish debt or any of the other peripheral sovereign debt, let alone “core” Eurozone debt issued by France or Belgium. The ridiculous bank “stress test” done a couple of months ago estimated that Europe’s largest 91 banks would require only about €2.4 billion to meet capitalization requirements. The reality is that they’ll need more like €150 billion to meet even the minimum requirements with rosy assumptions including high EU growth and no sovereign defaults.

Back in the real world, the truth is that all or nearly all of those banks are already bankrupt, and the EU no longer has the ammunition to do anything about that. The ECB is already bent completely out of its intended shape, engaging in legally-questionable if not outright illegal purchases of sovereign bonds and accepting essentially worthless paper as collateral. In effect, the ECB itself is in deep trouble, with its nominal balance sheet having no relation to reality. Making matters worse, as the EU lender of last resort, the ECB is now attempting to do what the banks themselves should be doing. The situation in the EU is so bad now that banks no longer trust each other. Banks with a temporary surplus would ordinarily do overnight loans of those surplus funds to other banks, earning some interest in the process. Instead, those banks are depositing the excess funds with the ECB, earning only tiny amounts of interest on them.

So it’s true. The ECB and Europe’s commercial banks are rotten sticks. Even Colin wouldn’t touch them.


I just got orders for the last two chemistry kits I had already built, so we’ll build another dozen or so kits this weekend. We’re still in pretty good shape in terms of components to build more kits, but once this batch of components runs out it looks like we’ll have to increase the price of the kits by $10 or so to cover increased costs. I hate to do that, because we’re trying to keep the kits as affordable as possible, but anyone who thinks these massive so-called “quantitative easings” don’t affect prices doesn’t understand economics. The true definition of inflation is “an increase in the money supply”, and quantitative easing is simply a weasel phrase for inflating the currency. That shows up sooner or later, usually sooner, in the prices we pay for everything.