Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Edouard Tétreau, 20 000 milliards de dollars, Grasset, 2010

Translation from a French version.

This essay is a quick and pleasant reading: situations are evoked so vividly that you feel as if you were a participant.

After reading the introduction one expects a text in three parts: 1) everything that goes wrong in the U.S., 2) why they will bounce anyway, 3) how other countries will pay the kickback. But the development does not exactly obey this plan: part 2, "bounce", is reduced to an evocation of the transfusion of vitality and population coming from Mexico - and Tétreau does not answer an obvious question: if the Anglo-Saxon and protestant U.S. came into decay so that their vitality and demography depend on a Latino-Indian and catholic immigration, what will their identity become?

But he says that Americans don't care about identity: "What counts is not what you are, but what you do", repeated those he met and this "what you do" means immediate action: "Don't think, just do it," they told him.

This primacy given to action is a double edged sword. The art of engineering and practical no-nonsense are the strength of the U.S. but thoughtless action may deteriorate in activism and barren agitation - and one wonders if the U.S., becoming obese in every sense of the word, do not have lost the energy that their short history showed.

The passages he devotes to religion are enlightening: the God in whom Americans worship in their churches is, in fact, a Providence that offers everyone the prospect of wealth: there is no trace in this theology of Jesus' discourse about the rich.

Tétreau knows a lot about finance and he knows how to interpret what the bankers say. As he quotes them verbatim we understand that the their activity is to surf on a succession of fleeting illusions. This sport being very rewarding, they believe reality belongs to an illusory world.

In this world a claim only holds if the debtor agrees to honor it and nothing is easier, in the U.S., than to remove a debt. Whoever is in debt for a house that has lost its value can drop it and leave the creditor to fend; General Motors goes bankrupt, transfers its debts to the federal State and then restarts.

And this is inevitably what the U.S. themselves will make, Tétreau says. The federal State is already in debt 13 000 billion dollars, and according to optimistic forecasts its debt will be 20 000 billion in 2020. The State will be unable to pay such an amount: so he will have no alternative but to cancel his debt by sending the creditors to hell or, more insidiously, by strongly devaluing the dollar as well as all debts and assets denominated in that currency.

One could quibble about the accuracy of Tétreau's accounting: he would have done better to consider the net debt of the U.S. towards the outside rather than the gross debt of the federal State (see "A misleading indicator" ). But his analysis is nevertheless correct: an accurate assessment would lead to a comparable order of magnitude.

A monetary cataclysm seems therefore likely to Tétreau, deadline falling in the coming years or even months. The devaluation of dollar-denominated assets will indeed, given the importance of the dollar in the global monetary system, provoke a crisis in the other currencies - and therefore, he says, political troubles similar to those of the 30s and even wars.

All this is not delighting - and this book itself could contribute to a loss of confidence in the currency - but the mentality and attitudes it describes, particularly in the financial world, make this disaster possible and even probable.

Tétreau concludes with a call for the establishment of a political and economic European entity, the United States of Europe, which should retain only the better from the model offered by the United States of America: practical sense, energy and the art of engineering.

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