Monday, February 8, 2010

The Non-Comparison

It seems quite popular in these days of crisis for certain commentators to compare struggling individual states within the USA to the troubled Eurozone PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). ECB President and Apologist in Chief for the Euro Jean-Claude Trichet (and boy isn't that a bunch of Capitalized Words strung together) is a prime example. A couple of weeks ago in a speech about the Greek Financial Crisis his remarks were summarized by Business Week:

He [Trichet] also played down the importance of Greece's economy on the euro region, which he said represents less than 3 percent of the bloc's GDP, especially when compared with the size of a U.S. state such as California.

A number of news outlets and blogger have echoed these sentiments so it behooves us to examine the validity of the comparison. On the pure surface level, Trichet is correct: California had a GSP of $1,850 billion in 2008, whereas Greece's GDP was less than one fifth as large at $343 billion. So we can conclude that he in not lying outright but what of the implied statement that California's financial problems are more important to the US than Greece's are to the Eurozone and EU? For this analysis we will leave aside the issue of the rest of the PIIGS.

For perspective, let's start with raw numbers. The debt of the Greek government hit 300 billion Euros two months ago making headlines around the financial world. At current exchange rates, this is over $400 billion and is surely higher today. The total general fund debt of California is LESS THAN $85 billion as of January 1, 2010. So in absolute terms, the Greek Problem is nearly FIVE TIMES LARGER than California's. In terms proportional to the size of the respective economies, the disparity becomes even more striking.

Implications of Federalism
With a little thought, the reason for this disparity should be obvious. California's state government brings in tax revenue of just under 5.0% of GSP and plans to spend 5.5% of GSP in the FY 2010 budget. Greece taxed 32.2% of GDP and spent 43.0% of GDP in 2009 as estimated by the CIA World Factbook. The state government of California is not the top-level sovereign even within its own borders. Federal taxation and spending within California far exceeds the comparable activities driven by Sacramento. In terms of government impact on the economy, the key is at the Federal level, not the state. So in addition to California's government problems being a much smaller deal overall, the consequences of failure would also be less for the population than would be the case in Greece. We can safely conclude that Trichet's statement, while true at first blush was highly misleading in its implications. There is simply no comparison between the gravity of the current crisis in Greece and the looming one in California.

Having dealt with that nonsense, let's talk about the rest of the PIIGS. These are all similar, top-level sovereign situations. It would appear that Portual is next, with Spain not far behind from the trading activity in CDS and the rising risk premiums being demanded. Italy is not nearly as badly off and it may be unfair to lump them in with the rest of this group; the market appears to be taking note of that as well. And then, there is Ireland.

Celtic Hedge Fund
Ireland is in for a tough time. Their total external debt was 1,637 billion Euros (roughly $2.23 trillion) as of September 30, 2009 with an economy of $177 billion per the CIA. Irish banks alone account for 41% of the debt. Another way to express this is that their banks owe foreigners over 500% of the nation's annual GDP. Many financial institutions are counted in the "Other" category which is nearly as large in terms of foreign obligations. The largest components would be insurance companies and pension funds. In all, Ireland's financial sector probably owes nearly 1,000% of GDP to overseas entities. This is a time bomb comparable in design to Iceland but with many times the explosive power. This is another nation being run like a hedge fund but Ireland currently owes more than 30x as much as Iceland going into their meltdown.

None of this is to suggest that the US doesn't have truly huge problems. But let's not be distracted by specious comparisons involving the states. In the US, the fate of sovereign credit will be determined almost entirely by the actions of the Federal government and the market's reaction to them. In the Eurozone, that same process will be resolved in the national capitals and possibly also in Berlin. Barring a decision by Germany to bail out other members, individual European nations can and will choose austerity or default themselves.


bulldog said...

great post!

Rickoshay said...

It would seem to me that, if the conditions were to worsen, it could bring about the collapse of the Euro. Does this seem probable to anyone else?