Friday, January 18, 2008

Dark Matter in Action

The Economist is concerned about Sovereign Wealth Funds and it appears Washington is as well. My personal reaction when I heard that international investors were pouring another 12.5 Billion into Citi on top of the 7.5 Billion they received at the end of last year was a bit different. This, I thought, is Dark Matter in action.

Dark Matter was a much ballyhooed hypothesis that the US could manage to run such large trade deficits because it was making a killing on its investments overseas. Think of it this way. Suppose you borrowed $100,000 at 5% interest. You took half of that money, $50,000, and blew it on a big screen TV, new stereo, trip to Thailand etc. You took the other $50,000 and invested it at 15% guaranteed.

So you end up having to pay $5,000 a year in interest, but you are receiving $7,500 in interest. On net are in debt? What does it mean to be a net debtor if you are actually taking in more money on your investments than you are paying out.

Yet, someone who looked at your spending habits would say, "you borrowed $50K and blew on junk, you must be in debt."

In a nutshell is the situation the US finds itself in. Went spent a bunch of borrowed money on junk but we managed to invest the rest at incredible rates - or so it seemed.

A more careful examination of the data revealed that it wasn't that the US was earning amazing returns on its investments. It was that foreigners were getting a lousy return on the money they loaned to us or otherwise invested in the US.

Which brings us back to Citi. Are foreigners swooping in to buy one of the US's venerable institutions at fire sale prices, or like the Mitsubishi purchase of Rockefeller Center, are they overpaying for a famous property that can no longer produce. My guess is that it is more the latter than the former.

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