Monday, March 23, 2009

Soon there may be nobody left to lend to America


Anyone who thought Ben Bernanke and his Federal Reserve Board colleagues were out of ammunition received a rude, or pleasant, shock last week. Rude, if you worry that a few extra trillions sloshing around the economy might one day trigger a wave of inflation; pleasant, if you worry that the economy is sinking fast, and the Obama administration and Congress haven’t a clue what to do about it.

The Fed plans to buy $300 billion of Treasury IOUs in the next six months (more to come if needed), pour $1.45 trillion into the mortgage market, and keep interest rates close to zero for “an extended period”. There’s more in the Fed’s “do whatever it takes” arsenal if these steps don’t bring interest rates down so people can borrow more cheaply to buy houses, cars and other durable goods. But so far, so good: interest rates on 30-year mortgages fell below 5%. Whether that will encourage enough creditworthy borrowers to sop up the huge inventory of unsold homes, much less trigger new construction, is difficult to predict.

But the dollar dropped like a stone. Earlier, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said he was “a little bit worried” that America might cheapen (that means hyper-inflation folks) its currency and pay back the $1.2 trillion it owes in depreciated dollars. Now that the Fed has moved, he must be a lot worried.

The Fed’s decision to pump trillions into the money markets comes on top of President Barack Obama’s proposal to drive the federal deficit to 12% of GDP by borrowing trillions to fund a few stimulus projects, universal healthcare, a green energy system and a host of other programmes on his wish list. Obama’s assurance that America will never default on its debt hasn’t completely soothed the markets: The Wall Street Journal reports that it now costs seven times as much to buy insurance against an American government default (It costs more because there is less confidence) as it did only a year ago. Besides, America can always inflate its way out of its obligations.


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