Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lessons of the Russian Ponzi scheme

This is how Wikipedia describes the Russian financial crisis of 1998:
“Prior to the culmination of the economic crisis, the GKO bonds (Russian treasury bonds) issuance policy was similar to a pyramid, or Ponzi scheme”.
A Ponzi scheme! How America gloated in 1998 at the victorious end of the cold war. We were flush with pride over the beautiful new internet, and the stock market was soaring. But America, having gone a little overboard on internet frenzy, and hoping to pull off something bigger and better, soon built the most spectacular Ponzi scheme the world had ever seen: the housing and mortgage bond Ponzi. A Ponzi to end all Ponzis.

The thing that finally drove Russia into insolvency was a peculiar problem: oil was selling too cheap. It was essential to government revenues. Now people want Russia to increase oil production for the convenience of American drivers. If Russia (or the Arabian nations) increased production, the price of oil will go down. Why would they do that? Earth to America: nobody owes you any favors. It is America that owes.

A few weeks ago I wrote that when the treasury bill market finally softens, it will be “game over” for the Fed. A strong treasury market is the only thing that is maintaining the illusion of American solvency right now. I was thinking the treasury might start to turn over in November or December (08). But almost as soon as I wrote it, the treasury chart started to look a little softer:

Well a little softness in the very strong treasury is not going to crash the dollar — yet. But what would happen if it decisively broke down out of its up-trending channel? Suppose it went into a secular bear trend, chasing the dollar to the bottom? There would be a stampede out of treasuries, that's what. We'd blame the Chinese, naturally. “Economic Warfare”, we'd shout (although American hedge funds would be selling too). The Persian Gulf states would finally give up on us. They would try to separate their economies from ours. The only question is what sellers of treasuries would buy? Euros? Rubles? Gold? All three, probably.

Don't forget that the yield on a bond moves inversely to the price. A falling price makes the yield on a bond rise. And how would an insolvent USA pay the increasing interest on its debt? Simple: not for very long. The point will come, maybe within a year, when America defaults on its debt. Just as Russia did in 1998, as a result of its own top heavy financial system, America will default. That will be the final, ignominious end of a spectacularly successful era of American history, and it's sudden collapse. Maybe it will also be a beginning? I hope so.

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