Will California Be Removed from the United States?

Ever since the War Between the States (circa 1860), there hasn’t been a serious (or at least widespread) move for succession from the United States. However, there is a call by some for the State of California to be removed. Have you heard about this?

As you may know, California is bankrupt. That ball got rolling back in December 1994, when Orange County declared bankruptcy. Once one of the most prosperous districts in the state, it watched a pool of riskily invested and highly leveraged money go south, and the game was up. After losses totaling $1.6 billion, a liquidity trap was sprung from which Orange County’s Treasurer Tax-collector Robert Citron could not escape.

Although considered somewhat of an isolated incident, it wasn’t long until related problems began to emerge. Now the state faces endless traffic jams, aging schools and hospitals, falling cash accounts and an annual budget more dependent on volatile tax revenues than at any time in state history. And it looks like the crunch will come to a head under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But here’s the real problem.

All by itself, California is the eighth-largest economy in the world. So its bankruptcy would spell trouble for those that are interconnected with it — especially neighboring states that depend on California’s economic machine for their own growth.

But does California care? It doesn’t seem that way. Its state budget is larger than any other in the United States ($56 billion). And yet that still isn’t enough money to keep it out of trouble. It refuses to live within its means, and is determined to borrow at ever-increasing levels. For proof, remember that California voters rejected a bill that was really called, “The California Live Within Our Means Act.”

Why the arrogance? Perhaps it believes the Fed will step in with a bailout. After all, billions and billions have been given to private corporations… why shouldn’t a state benefit equally — especially if it would sink the U.S. economy otherwise?

But the corporate bailouts came with strings attached. So it’s easy to see the government telling the state to take action to get out of its mess. Reduce spending, cut programs and implement austerity programs until California’s budget is actually balanced.

Then make the very real threat to exorcise it from the Union if it doesn’t comply.

I’m sure you’re saying, “Wait, wait, hold the phone! Nobody is talking about this. There’s no chance that California is going to be kicked out of the United States”

And I am sure that you’re right. But we’ve heard very similar language used when it comes to talking about Greece and the European Union. And, in fact, that’s what today’s commentary addresses. Is it more likely that Greece will be removed form the European Union than that the state of California will be removed from the United States? After all, there are some similarities that make the comparison of the two cases worth considering.

Will California Go Greek?

Each party, Greece and California, are members of a union or conglomerate of political entities. Each one shares a united currency with the others in the union. Each one has particular trade interrelations as well as financial interrelations with others in the union. Lastly, each is “bankrupt,” and that has a certain dilatory effect on those around it.

As you may know, Greece has gotten a lot of bad publicity of late, and it has really hurt the euro — down around 10% in the last few months alone. Does the negative position of the Greek economy warrant such a drag on the European Union as a whole? Generally, they are only considered to be about 2–3% of the economy as a whole. California, on the other hand, is a little more than 10% of the U.S. economy as measured by GDP.

Thus, in theory, Greece should only drag down the euro by 3% on balance, but California should drag down the U.S. dollar by 10%. Overall, then, the USD should have fallen total of 7% against the euro… all things being equal.

But the problem is — all things are NOT equal. Here’s why.

California is a part of a 235-year-old republic. Even though it has not been a member for that same period, it nevertheless is a part of a union that has stood many difficult tests of time.

On the other hand, the European Union is still an experiment. It is barely out of adolescence, and we don’t know yet if it will even grow to stand among the older economies of the world. Also, even though both parties are entities in union structures, the structure of each union is different and addresses problems differently. The long and short of it is that California’s position in the United States is significantly more substantial than that of Greece in the European Union.

So right now California looks like a keeper and Greece a goner. If Europeans are reluctant to break up their happy (till now) Union, they only have a few options:

1. The European Union offers “solidarity” but no financial support.
2. The European Union offers a unified fiscal support from all members.
3. The European Union designates the stronger countries to subsidize the Greeks.
4. A mixture of numbers 2 and 3. Many have maintained that a bailout would be a violation of the Maastricht Treaty, the paperwork that created the European Union. However, the treaty itself is somewhat like a vicious dog that has no teeth or claws.

Here is an excerpt from the consolidated treaty, a piece that is commonly called the “No Bailout Clause”: The Community shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of any Member State, without prejudice to mutual financial guarantees for the joint execution of a specific project. A Member State shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of another Member State, without prejudice to mutual financial guarantees for the joint execution of a specific project. There you have it… NO BAILOUTS.

However, when a member does get into fiscal hot water, that language is no longer effective or applicable. At that point Article 100 takes over. It reads: Where a Member State is in difficulties or is seriously threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences beyond its control, the Council, acting by a qualified majority on a proposal from the Commission, may grant, under certain conditions, Community financial assistance to the Member State concerned. The President of the Council shall inform the European Parliament of the decision taken. NOW, there you have it… BAILOUTS PERMITTED.

I only give you that so you are aware that bailouts can and will be formulated in the upcoming disasters. And they do not violate the treaty itself.

However, the bigger question remains, if the European Union allows fiscal support for Greece, does that mean carte blanch permission for others to run to the EU money window and collect assistance for their carefree spending days?

It certainly seems to me that if the European Union makes this decision, which, as we have seen, is fully allowable by law, it will lose all credibility. And that may be the only thing that stands between them and ruination of the Union. It may end up collapsing on itself, even if no members ever leave, and its downfall will be the loss of confidence in the currency.

So then, how much further could the euro fall? Could it go all the way to parity? Most certainly. But before that point we will likely see many waxing and wanes of each side of the currency pair. We see a little rebound in risk appetite.

But what does all this mean for the United States and its currency?

The United States

Philosophically and economically, the United States is on a rendezvous with history… unfortunately, the path we are taking is a crash course. Many people have to come realize that we are nearing the end of a gigantic global economic experiment. No one has really walked this particular path before. A circumstance where every major nation in the world (and many minor ones too) is utilizing paper currency that has no backing of any value except for the promise of the issuing government. And we have all come to see what that is worth.

And as the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. No currency is bigger than the U.S. dollar. No economy is bigger than that of the United States. When it comes, great will be the fall of it. Fortunes will be made. But so long as it remains the reserve currency, it is very difficult (although not impossible) for it to collapse.

It is difficult because each time it falls and gets cheap to buy, there are many who still buy it because the majority of the world’s goods are priced in U.S. dollars. So when the dollar gets cheap, so do the world’s commodities to those who are buying in currencies other than the dollar.

For us here in the United States, a cheaper dollar means more expensive everything: gas, groceries, cars… you name it. But when the dollar is cheap and other currencies are strong, it becomes a good time to stock up. Such buying will continue to prop up the dollar until a different reserve is found or created. Since such a thing will not occur overnight, the prospect for currency fluctuation over the next several decade and our opportunity to profit from it will be tremendous.

But make no mistake: the dollar is in trouble — one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.

Bill Jenkins

February 19, 2010

The Daily Reckoning