Friday, June 19, 2009

Uh, yeah, I'd like to buy a country....

Two Japanese men got caught attempting to smuggle $134 billion worth of US treasuries into Switzerland:

Two Japanese men are detained in Italy after allegedly attempting to take $134 billion worth of U.S. bonds over the border into Switzerland. Details are maddeningly sketchy, so naturally the global rumor mill is kicking into high gear.

Are these would-be smugglers agents of Kim Jong Il stashing North Korea’s cash in a Swiss vault? Bagmen for Nigerian Internet scammers? Was the money meant for terrorists looking to buy nuclear warheads? Is Japan dumping its dollars secretly? Are the bonds real or counterfeit?

The implications of the securities being legitimate would be bigger than investors may realize. At a minimum, it would suggest that the U.S. risks losing control over its monetary supply on a massive scale.

$134 billion dollars is a lot of money. To put that into perspective, it is approximately 15-20% of the total debt owed by the US to the nation of China. It would be a somewhat larger fraction of what is owed to Japan or Russia. It is larger than many nations annual GDP, as mentioned in the article. If the paper is legitimate, not counterfeit, there is really only one source it could have come from: a national government. Nobody else has pockets that deep. In fact, there are really not that many national governments that would have a stash of treasuries that big, as mentioned in the article. I seriously doubt that North Korea would even begin to make such a list. However, as the article goes on to discuss, the implication is clear: a lot of people are looking to unload these puppies, they don't want to be broadcasting it, and the reason this looks like such an ominous portent instead of just some bizarro story is that there is so much truth to the idea that in a logical, rational world people ought to be trying to unload these things in just such a manner. One more sign that the dollar is in trouble.

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