Sunday, 28 August 2011

12:17 – Irene nailed the North Carolina and Virginia coastal areas pretty badly, but we saw no effects in Winston-Salem other than a stiff breeze and a bit of rain. This storm had the potential to make landfall as a Category 3 or even 4, so most of those in the affected areas are probably feeling pretty lucky that it was “only” a Category 1. Of course, that’s small consolation to those who were killed or injured by this storm, or suffered severe property damage.

I’m still working on the biology kits (and book). We made up subassemblies yesterday for another 18 chemistry kits, which means I need to start getting orders ready for more components. While I’m doing those orders, I’ll add the stuff I need to prototype the biology kit and produce maybe a dozen of them.

I periodically get emails and a few comments about how the Euro crisis is not really serious. Those messages invariably comment on the size of the US debt relative to Euro nation debts. Now, it’s true that the US is highly indebted, but what really counts is how much each country has to pay on that debt. Assuming that Greece, Italy, and the US all had to refinance all of their existing debt tomorrow at the current bond yields, here are some rough numbers with interest payments as a percentage of GDP.

US – interest payments of about $200 billion a year on outstanding debt of about $15 trillion, with GDP around $15 trillion = 1.33% of GDP

Italy – interest payments of about $200 billion a year on outstanding debt of about $3 trillion, with GDP around $2 trillion = 10% of GDP

Greece – interest payments of about $200 billion a year on outstanding debt of about $488 billion, with GDP around $305 billion = 66% of GDP

I’m making some assumptions here that render these percentages meaningless, because the market would not continue to lend money to any of these countries if they attempted to refinance their entire debts at one time. For Italy, I’m assuming yields of about 6.7%. They’re currently right at 5% on 10-year debt, but that’s with the ECB buying Italian bonds like crazy. They can’t do that much longer, and when they stop doing it the yields on Italian bonds will skyrocket. On Greek debt, I’m using the current 2-year yields, which are north of 40%, because few people are crazy enough to lend money to Greece on a 2-year basis, let alone for 10 years. And, of course, these countries don’t need to refinance all of their debt overnight. But Italy and Greece do need to refinance a huge chunk of their current debt over the next few months, and these yields are reasonable in that scenario. In fact, I’d expect to see yields north of 10% if not 15% on Italian debt when the big chunks come due for refinancing, and yields considerably over 50% for Greece. That won’t actually happen, of course, because both Greece and Italy will default first.

Making matters worse, while the US can print as many dollars as it needs to avoid default, that option is not open to Greece or Italy. There are two potential directions this could go. First, Greece and Italy could abandon the euro and return to the drachma and lira, respectively. If that happens, their local currencies will be devalued hugely literally overnight. They won’t be able to buy enough euros to honor their debts, and they will default. Conversely, Germany and the other northern tier countries may abandon the euro and return to their local currencies. If that happens, the countries that remain in the Eurozone will see the value of the euro plummet relative to the northern tier currencies as well as the pound and dollar. The new ECB can print as many euros as it needs to, and it will need a lot to pay off all those debts. Someone who holds a euro-denominated bond for a billion euros will in fact be paid that billion euros. The problem is, those billion euros will be worth probably at most a tenth of what they’re worth now relative to the dollar or pound or Swiss franc. The remaining Eurozone countries become dirt-poor overnight, while the northern tier countries benefit by paying off their euro-denominated debt in euros that are nearly worthless. Of course, the holders of that debt suffer badly, as will holders of any euro-denominated debt. Northern-tier countries see their exports plummet, but those high levels of exports to other EU countries were never anything other than illusory anyway. There’s no point in sending goods to countries that aren’t going to pay for them.

All of this makes me wonder when our politicians are going to wake up to the fact that J. M. Keynes was completely wrong. If they had any sense, they’d be reading F. A. Hayek, who had it completely right all along. Of course, being politicians, by definition they have no sense. And, to a politician, Keynes’ advice to governments to intervene constantly and heavily in markets is much more appealing than Hayek’s advice to keep their damned hands off the markets.