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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Washington: Get a Grip on Reality

Fiscal stimulus is reaching its global limits. The lowest interest rates in history are failing to gain traction. The Fed seems paralyzed. It first talked of buying US Treasuries three months ago, but cannot seem to bring itself to hit the nuclear button.

As the Fed dithers, a flood of bond issues from the US Treasury is swamping the debt market. The yield on 10-year Treasuries has climbed from 2pc to 3.04pc in eight weeks. The real cost of money is rising as deflation gathers pace.

US house prices have fallen 27pc (Case-Shiller index). The pace of descent is accelerating. The 2.2pc fall in December was the worst month ever. January looks just as bad. Delinquenc-ies on prime mortgages were 1.72pc in September, 1.89pc in October, 2.13pc on November and 2.42pc in December. This is the trajectory eating away at the banking system.

Graham Turner, from GFC Economics, fears the Dow could crash to 4,000 by summer unless there is a "quantum reduction" in mortgage rates. The Fed should swoop in to the market – armed with Ben Bernanke's "printing press" – and mop up enough Treasuries to force 10-year yields down to 1pc and mortgage rates to 2.5pc. Monetary shock and awe.

This remedy is fraught with risk, but all options are ghastly at this point. That is the legacy we have been left by the Greenspan doctrine. We are at the moment of extreme danger in Irving Fisher's "Debt Deflation Theory" (1933) where the ship fails to right itself by natural buoyancy, and capsizes instead.

From all accounts, the Fed was ready to launch its bond blitz in January. Something happened. Perhaps the hawks awoke in cold sweats at night, fretting about Weimar.

Perhaps they feared that China and the world will pull the plug on the US bond market. If so, it is time for Washington to get a grip. America remains the hegemonic global power. The Obama team should let it be known – and perhaps Hillary Clinton did just that on her trip to Asia – that any country playing games with the US bond market in this crisis will be treated as an enemy and pay a crushing price.

Pacific allies already know that they cannot take the US security blanket for granted. As for China – and others pursuing a mercantilist strategy of export-led growth – they must know that the US can shut off its market and wreak havoc to their economy.

Read it all here.

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