YOU THINK you have problems? You should have the problems some people have in Kuwait or Alaska.
What are they? Well, in Kuwait, consider the problem faced by 40-year-old Jassim Mutawa. Mr. Mutawa owes some $12.1 billion but has assets of only $6.9 billion, and so he has gone bankrupt. At $5.2 billion, that's probably the biggest bankruptcy in history. Those of you who can't fathom how anyone could amass $12.1 billion in debts don't know about Kuwait's Souk Manakh. This was an unofficial stock market, now shut down, in which you traded stocks of newly formed and often not yet operating Persian Gulf companies, and in which you paid not with cash but with checks that were postdated one year. Yes, we said, postdated one year-- and don't we all wish Pepco and Vepco and C & P would start accepting those.
Not surprisingly, last year the Souk Manakh crashed, with losses estimated, surely with dubious precision, at $92 billion. It's easy to say this serves the Kuwaitis right for getting so rich off their oil. But before we sneer too much, let's remember that supposedly advanced Western countries have had similar problems, from Holland's tulip craze of the 17th century to Wall Street's infatuation in the late 1960s with stocks bearing names such as National Student Marketing and Performance Systems (previously known, you may recall, as Minnie Pearl Chicken). And we might take a look, too, at what is happening in the other oil-rich commonwealth, the state of Alaska.
There, Gov. William Sheffield has a real problem. The state has a Permanent Fund of some $3 billion, accumulated from the vast oil royalties it's earned from state lands, and that $3 billion produced an income of some $280 million last year. Some of it is used to finance Alaska's state government, but in a state with only some 400,000 people, there's quite a lot left over.
So Alaska has a Cash Dividend Program to pay money out of the Permanent Fund's earnings to every citizen of the state. Last year, each citizen got $1,000, but this year there's only enough to pay $250 each. That may make some voters mad. And Gov. Sheffield wants to repeal the Cash Dividend Program altogether. He argues that it tends to dissipate the state's inherently temporary oil earnings and causes resentment in what Alaskans call the Lower 48. That sounds pretty reasonable, but as you might expect, many Alaska legislators don't agree, and so far the governor's plan to repeal the cash payouts has been blocked.
Both Kuwait's and Alaska's problems stem from the drop in oil prices over the past two years; if prices had kept rising indefinitely, as many expected, the Souk Manakh would probably still be humming and Alaskans would be planning now how to spend this year's $1,000. So remember, even as you're paying less at the gas pump or enjoying the spectacle of lower oil bills than you had expected, that out there in the rest of the world, some people are suffering--sort of.