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Connect The Dots: Bailouts, Bankruptcy And Gold

Simon Black, Sovereign Man

June 29, 2012
Tel Aviv, Israel

This week may very well go down as ‘connect the dots’ week. Things have been moving so quickly, so let’s step back briefly and review the big picture from the week’s events:

1) After weeks… months… even years of posturing and denial, Spain and Cyprus became the fourth and fifth countries to formally request aid from Europe’s bailout funds on Monday.

In doing so, these governments have officially confessed to their own insolvency and the insolvency of their respective banking systems.

Meanwhile, Slovenia’s prime minister said that his country may soon ask for a bailout. (Humorously, Slovenia’s Finance Minister denied any such plans.)

Spain’s 10-year bond yield jumped to over 7% again in response, and many Spanish banks were downgraded to junk status by Moodys.

2) Over in the US, the city of Stockton, California filed for bankruptcy this week… the largest so far, but certainly a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.

3) JP Morgan, considered to be among the few ‘good’ banks remaining in the US, conceded that the $2 billion loss they announced several weeks ago might actually be more like $9 billion.

4) The Federal Reserve reported yesterday that foreigners are reducing their holdings of US Treasuries.

5) Countries from Ukraine to Kazakhstan to Turkey announced that they have purchased gold in recent months to bolster their growing reserves.

6) Chile has joined a growing list of countries that has agreed to bypass the US dollar and settle all of its trade with China in renminbi.

7) China has further announced plans to create a special zone in Shenzhen, one of its wealthiest cities, to allow full exchange and convertibility of the renminbi.

8) World banking regulators from the Bank of International Settlements to the FDIC are proposing that gold bullion be treated as a risk-free cash equivalent by commercial banks.

So… what we can see from this week’s events is:

– European governments are insolvent
– European banks are insolvent
– US governments are heading in that direction
– Even the best US banks are not as strong as believed
– Foreigners are abandoning the US dollar and seeking alternatives
– Gold is money

These events are all connected, and the trend is becoming so clear that even the most casual observers are starting to wake up.

When you connect the dots, the next steps lead to what may soon be regarded as an obvious conclusion: the system, as it exists right now, is crumbling.

No amount of self-delusion can make this go away.

Rational thinking and measured action, on the other hand, can make the consequences go away… turning people from victims into spectators of the greatest bubble burst in modern times.

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This Central American Nation Is Spending Roughly 50% Of Its Entire Economy On Infrastructure

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by Simon Black, Sovereign Man

March 8, 2012

Panama City, Panama

I had dinner the other night with a bank executive in charge of government finance who told me that the aggregate spend of all the infrastructure projects in Panama totals more than $13 billion. This is roughly 50% of the entire Panamanian economy.

The equivalent in the United States would be the government announcing a ‘Rebuild America’ infrastructure spending initiative in the range of $8 TRILLION! No doubt, it’s a lot of money for this small country.

Panama (and particularly Panama City) has been in a seemingly perpetual state of construction for nearly 10-years. The long boom in residential construction created an impressive skyline of condo towers along the new Cinta Costera. But residential demand peaked and petered several years ago.

In an effort to keep the party going, the government has essentially swapped a residential construction boom for an infrastructure boom.

There are so many projects here, you’d think you were in Chonqing, China. And it’s made life miserable for anyone who has to get into an automobile– Panama City’s already dismal traffic has now become utterly hopeless.

The real issue is that Panama’s debt has been steadily rising to finance several projects. In many cases, the debt increase has outpaced the country’s dizzying GDP growth. For example, Panama’s debt rose 10.3% in 2010, while GDP only increased 7.5%.

According to some of my local attorneys who work on the deals, many of these infrastructure projects are now being creatively financed: selling bonds of off-the-books quasi-government entities that own securitized future cash flows.

It’s all an elaborate process to keep the debt from hitting the government balance sheet and obfuscating Panama’s true fiscal status. Official debt is now hovering near 50% of GDP, but the actual figure is much higher.

It’s possible that some of these projects will prove to be good investments– it’s not the same as Chinese ghost cities down here, Panama has legitimate infrastructure needs and is building accordingly.

What remains to be seen, though, is what happens after the infrastructure projects are complete in, say, another 5-years. The hope is that the real economy will have grown enough to absorb the loss of infrastructure spending. This supposition is not out of the question… but it’s definitely not guaranteed.

For now, nobody seems to mind. People are working, they’re making money, the country is improving… and except for the obvious and ridiculously high inflation rate, life is good.

To be clear, Panama is definitely a good news story. It has had one of the most resilient economies in Latin America over the past few years, and perhaps more than anywhere else in Central America, Panama has a very clear (and growing) middle class.

When you go out at night, you see Panamanians out on the town spending their discretionary income… and I mean regular Panamanians, not just the Porsche-driving 20-year olds who inherited papi’s business.

A strong middle class with disposable income is important in any healthy economy, and its emergence marks the transition from ‘developing’ to ‘developed’ nation. Panama still has a -long- way to go, but it’s moving in the right direction.

When I think back to how this place used to be 10-years ago (and all the years in between that I spent here) versus today, the positive change is overwhelming. When I think about how places like the US and Europe used to be 10-years ago, the change is resoundingly negative.

It’s this trend, by far, that’s most important.

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