April 27, 2009

The Bubbles Are Piling Up

It seems that a Kazakh bank might be the first one to collapse from losses that originated in the commodity bubble.
New York Times: The largest bank in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, whose economy soared when oil prices were high, announced on Friday that it could no longer repay $11 billion in foreign debt.

The bank, BTA, said it would pay only interest to foreign creditors, who lavished the country with loans during the commodity boom. The move underscored the growing financial instability in countries all across the former Soviet Union.


BTA had been wobbly for some time. The Kazakh government partly nationalized the bank in February. That was taken as a sign that the bank’s debt might be covered by a sovereign guarantee, though even at the time government-appointed executives said they were studying ways to restructure foreign debt.
I have long been suspecting that the dangers of letting large banks fail have been much exaggerated, especially compared to the burden that is caused by governments picking up the tab. Hopefully the economy of Kazakhstan will not completely collapse.

The losses from the housing market and structured credit bubbles haven't been cleared. Yet we are already witnessing huge losses from the commodity bubble.

Since the 60's the US has seen an ever more rapid sequence of bubbles: conglomerates, junk bonds, real estate, tech stocks, housing, structured credit, commodities, and finally, government bonds. When the accumulation of foreign dollar reserves reverses itself, the government bond bubble will come to an end. That might actually be pretty close now.

It seems that the era of serial bubbles is ending in bubbles that are ever more short in duration, until they can no longer be “fixed” by creating a new one.

When looking at the whole trend, I can't help but to think that the biggest bubble of all has been of the standards of living in the developed world. Western standards of living were raised to unsustainable levels by relying on undercompensated use of colonial resources, until the 1960's. After the colonial period, a massive accumulation of debt has been used to delay the inevitable balancing of global consumption patterns. All the other bubbles are just minor manifestations of this all-enclosing bubble of debt.

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