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Another Day, Another Bail-Out

With a bail-out of Greece apparently imminent and everyone drawing parallels between the PIGS countries and the Wall Street firms that nearly cratered the global economy in 2008, this might be a good time to ask why each year seems to bring a new set of financial basket cases requiring taxpayer cash.

The answer, of course, is easy money. When governments create too much credit, borrowing gets easier at the margins and the less intelligent, moral, and wise end up borrowing far more than they would normally be able to. When they inevitably implode, the world gets another chance to behave rationally by letting them go, accepting the resulting short-term pain, and learning the relevant lessons. But beginning in the 1990s with the Mexican and Russian defaults and the self-destruction of Long Term Capital Management, the strong economies have chosen to avoid the pain and bail out the losers.

This lack of adult supervision produces two results:

First, the credit created by each new bail-out finds its way into other weak hands, further impairing their balance sheets and requiring more bail-outs. Now we’ve graduated from banks to governments, and apparently a borrower as inconsequential as Greece (with foreign debt of less than $400 billion) can bring down the entire global financial system.

Second, the balance sheets of the strong countries get progressively weaker. As the U.S. took on Fannie and Freddie’s trillions, so will Germany absorb Greece’s billions. And the new wave is just getting started. Greece is the worst case, but just barely. Portugal, Spain, California and Illinois all owe more than they can ever hope to pay, and will, by the current standard of everything being too big to fail, have to be bailed out in the coming year. Their debts won’t be wiped out, but will migrate to Germany, France, or Washington. At some point those countries’ rock-solid bond ratings, already fictitious, will start to drop, making future bail-outs both harder and more necessary.

So 2010 will be the year of sovereign bail-outs at the periphery, which is bad enough. But next year, once several trillion more dollars and euros have been loaded onto large country balance sheets, the bailout profile will ratchet up to the next level, with one of the superpowers finding it impossible to roll over its debt. Japan looks like the best first-domino bet at this point, but as someone said not long ago, every debt auction is now an event risk. So it could easily be the U.S. which sees Treasury demand evaporate, followed by a spike in rates and a plunging dollar.

Putting it another way, bail-outs require strong currencies. As long as someone can borrow enough to defuse the latest time bomb the party will go on. When the bond or currency markets say no more, the party will end. Then we’ll see who’s really too big to fail.

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