Coming soon: one petayen

While awaiting the outcome of the Greek elections this coming weekend, the focus has been shifting in the blogosphere and on Bloomberg to the world’s most indebted government by far, Japan. Japan’s debt to GDP ratio is about 220%, around double that of Greece (after its restructuring). And the absolute level of debt is approaching Yen 1,000 trillion. Or, one quadrillion Yen, as John Mauldin’s blog points out.

We have got used to seeing the word trillion thrown around in the last few years, partly because of Chinese foreign exchange reserves (about $3.2 trillion at the last count). But a quadrillion? Wow. That is fifteen zeros. Or if you prefer Yen 1 x 10 to the power 15. Or one petayen.

Incidentally I’m puzzled why the two quantifier systems seem to be out of kilter. Quadrillion implies four but peta comes from five (following kila, mega, tera) representing 1,000 raised to the fifth power. In the IT world they already talk about data needs coming in exabytes (one up from peta – 1,000 raised to the sixth power). I imagine it’s because the names originally went with the old British system in which a billion was a million million (10 to the power 12) but sometime in the past the US meaning of the word (10 to the power 9) took over.

These are astronomical numbers, in the literal sense that you need them to describe the universe. There are an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe (10 to the power 11), and 300 sextillion stars (3 x 10 to the power 23). Perhaps one day there will be a Yen of debt for every star. A charming thought until you wonder how it will ever be repaid.

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