POSTED: 21 MARCH 2008 - 8:30am HST

Foreign Investors Veto Fed Rescue

image above: The dollar going down the drain. Graphic from The UK Telegraph

by Ambrose Evans-Pritchardon 19 March 2008 in The Telegraph

As feared, foreign bond holders have begun to exercise a collective vote of no confidence in the devaluation policies of the US government. The Federal Reserve faces a potential veto of its rescue measures.

Contagion fears sweep across the Atlantic
Dollar plunges as Fed grabble meltdown
Read more of Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

Desperate measures: Bernanke and the Federal Reserve need to keep on top of the crisis and continue to intervene if needed Asian, Mid East and European investors stood aside at last week's auction of 10-year US Treasury notes.

"It was a disaster," said Ray Attrill from 4castweb. "We may be close to the point where the uglier consequences of benign neglect towards the currency are revealed."

The share of foreign buyers ("indirect bidders") plummeted to 5.8pc, from an average 25pc over the last eight weeks. On the Richter Scale of unfolding dramas, this matches the death of Bear Stearns.

Rightly or wrongly, a view has taken hold that Washington is cynically debasing the coinage, hoping to export its day of reckoning through beggar-thy-neighbour policies.
It is not my view. I believe the forces of debt deflation now engulfing America - and soon half the world - are so powerful that nobody will be worrying about inflation a year hence.

Yes, the Fed caused this mess by setting the price of credit too low for too long, feeding the cancer of debt dependency. But we are in the eye of the storm now. This is not a time for priggery.

The Fed's emergency actions are imperative. Last week's collapse of confidence in the creditworthiness of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was life-threatening. These agencies underpin 60pc of the $11,000bn market for US home loans.

With the "financial accelerator" kicking into top gear - downwards - we may need everything that Ben Bernanke can offer.

Bear Stearns may be worse than LTCM collapse
• A world addicted to easy credit must go cold turkey
• How Bear Stearns ran out of the necessities

"The situation is getting worse, and the risks are that it could get very bad," said Martin Feldstein, head of the National Bureau of Economic Research. "There's no doubt that this year and next year are going to be very difficult."

Even monetary policy à l'outrance may not be enough to halt the spiral. Former US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers says the Fed's shower of liquidity cannot cure a bankruptcy crisis caused by a tidal wave of property defaults.

"It is like fighting a virus with antibiotics," he said.

We can no longer exclude a partial nationalisation of the American banking system, modelled on the Nordic rescue in the early 1990s.

But even if you think the Fed has no choice other than to take dramatic action, the critics are also right in warning that this comes at a serious cost and it may backfire.
The imminent risk is that global flight from US Treasury and agency debt drives up long-term rates, the key funding instrument for mortgages and corporations. The effect could outweigh Fed easing.

Overall credit conditions could tighten into a slump (like 1930). It's the stuff of bad dreams.

Is this the moment when America finally discovers the meaning of the Faustian pact it signed so blithely with Asian creditors?

As the Wall Street Journal wrote this weekend, the entire country is facing a "margin call". The US has come to depend on $800bn inflows of cheap foreign capital each year to cover shopping bills. They may have to pay a much stiffer rent.
As of June 2007, foreigners owned $6,007bn of long-term US debt. (Equal to 66pc of the entire US federal debt). The biggest holdings by country are, in billions: Japan (901), China (870), UK (475), Luxembourg (424), Cayman Islands (422), Belgium (369), Ireland (176), Germany (155), Switzerland (140), Bermuda (133), Netherlands (123), Korea (118), Russia (109), Taiwan (107), Canada (106), Brazil (103). Who is jumping ship?

The Chinese have quickened the pace of yuan appreciation to choke off 8.7pc inflation, slowing US bond purchases. Petrodollar funds, working through UK off-shore accounts, are clearly dumping dollars amid rumours that Gulf states - overheating wildly - are about to break their dollar pegs. But mostly likely, the twin crash in the dollar and US agency debt reflects a broad exodus by global wealth managers, afraid that America is spinning out of control. Sauve qui peut.

The bond debacle last week tallies with the crash in the dollar index to an all-time low of 71.58, down 14.6pc in a year. The greenback is nearing parity with the Swiss franc - shocking for those who remember when it was 4.375 francs in 1970. Against the euro it has hit $1.57, from $0.82 in 2000. Against the yen it has smashed through Y100. Spare a thought for Toyota. It loses $350m in revenues for every one yen move.

That is an $8.75bn hit since June. Tokyo's Nikkei index is crumbling. Less understood, it is also causing a self-reinforcing spiral of credit shrinkage throughout the global system.

Japanese investors and foreign funds are having to close their yen "carry trade" positions. A chunk of the $1,400bn trade built up over six years has been viciously unwound in weeks. The harder the dollar falls, the further this must go.

It is unsettling to watch the world's reserve currency disintegrate. Commodities from gold to oil and wheat are taking on the role of safe-haven "currencies". The monetary order is becoming unhinged.

I doubt the dollar can fall much further. What is it to fall against? The spreading credit contagion will cause large parts of the globe to downgrade in hot pursuit - starting with Europe.

Few noticed last week that the Italian treasury auction was also a flop. The bids collapsed. For the first time since the launch of EMU, Italy failed to sell a full batch of state bonds.

The euro blasted higher anyway, driven by hot money flows. The funds are beguiled by Germany's "Exportwunder", for now. It cannot last. The demented level of $1.57 will not be tolerated by French, Italian and Spanish politicians. The Latin property bubbles are deflating fast.

The race to the bottom must soon begin. Half the world will be slashing rates this year to stave off credit contraction. The dollar will have a lot of company. Small comfort.



POSTED: 21 MARCH 2008 - 8:30am HST

The Collapse Of American Power

by Paul Craig Roberts on 19 March 2008 in

In his famous book, The Collapse of British Power (1972), Correlli Barnett reports that in the opening days of World War II Great Britain only had enough gold and foreign exchange to finance war expenditures for a few months. The British turned to the Americans to finance their ability to wage war. Barnett writes that this dependency signaled the end of British power.

From their inception, America's 21st century wars against Afghanistan and Iraq have been red ink wars financed by foreigners, principally the Chinese and Japanese, who purchase the US Treasury bonds that the US government issues to finance its red ink budgets.

The Bush administration forecasts a $410 billion federal budget deficit for this year, an indication that, as the US saving rate is approximately zero, the US is not only dependent on foreigners to finance its wars but also dependent on foreigners to finance part of the US government's domestic expenditures.

Foreign borrowing is paying US government salaries--perhaps that of the President himself--or funding the expenditures of the various cabinet departments. Financially, the US is not an independent country.

The Bush administration's $410 billion deficit forecast is based on the unrealistic assumption of 2.7% GDP growth in 2008, whereas in actual fact the US economy has fallen into a recession that could be severe. There will be no 2.7% growth, and the actual deficit will be substantially larger than $410 billion.

Just as the government's budget is in disarray, so is the US dollar which continues to decline in value in relation to other currencies. The dollar is under pressure not only from budget deficits, but also from very large trade deficits and from inflation expectations resulting from the Federal Reserve's effort to stabilize the very troubled financial system with large injections of liquidity.

A troubled currency and financial system and large budget and trade deficits do not present an attractive face to creditors. Yet Washington in its hubris seems to believe that the US can forever rely on the Chinese, Japanese and Saudis to finance America's life beyond its means. Imagine the shock when the day arrives that a US Treasury auction of new debt instruments is not fully subscribed.

The US has squandered $500 billion dollars on a war that serves no American purpose. Moreover, the $500 billion is only the out-of-pocket costs. It does not include the replacement cost of the destroyed equipment, the future costs of care for veterans, the cost of the interests on the loans that have financed the war, or the lost US GDP from diverting scarce resources to war. Experts who are not part of the government's spin machine estimate the cost of the Iraq war to be as much as $3 trillion.

The Republican candidate for President said he would be content to continue the war for 100 years. With what resources? When America's creditors consider our behavior they see total fiscal irresponsibility. They see a deluded country that acts as if it is a privilege for foreigners to lend to it, and a deluded country that believes that foreigners will continue to accumulate US debt until the end of time.

The fact of the matter is that the US is bankrupt. David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the US and head of the Government Accountability Office, in his December 17, 2007, report to the US Congress on the financial statements of the US government noted that "the federal government did not maintain effective internal control over financial reporting (including safeguarding assets)

and compliance with significant laws and regulations as of September 30, 2007." In everyday language, the US government cannot pass an audit.

Moreover, the GAO report pointed out that the accrued liabilities of the federal government "totaled approximately $53 trillion as of September 30, 2007." No funds have been set aside against this mind boggling liability.

Just so the reader understands, $53 trillion is $53,000 billion.

Frustrated by speaking to deaf ears, Walker recently resigned as head of the Government Accountability Office.

As of March 17, 2008, one Swiss franc is worth more than $1 dollar. In 1970, the exchange rate was 4.2 Swiss francs to the dollar. In 1970, $1 purchased 360 Japanese yen. Today $1 dollar purchases less than 100 yen.

If you were a creditor, would you want to hold debt in a currency that has such a poor record against the currency of a small island country that was nuked and defeated in WW II, or against a small landlocked European country that clings to its independence and is not a member of the EU?

Would you want to hold the debt of a country whose imports exceed its industrial production? According to the latest US statistics as reported in the February 28 issue of Manufacturing and Technology News, in 2007 imports were 14 percent of US GDP and US manufacturing comprised 12% of US GDP. A country whose imports exceed its industrial production cannot close its trade deficit by exporting more.

The dollar has even collapsed in value against the euro, the currency of a make-believe country that does not exist: the European Union. France, Germany, Italy, England and the other members of the EU still exist as sovereign nations. England even retains its own currency. Yet the euro hits new highs daily against the dollar.

Noam Chomsky recently wrote that America thinks that it owns the world. That is definitely the view of the neoconized Bush administration. But the fact of the matter is that the US owes the world. The US "superpower" cannot even finance its own domestic operations, much less its gratuitous wars except via the kindness of foreigners to lend it money that cannot be repaid.

The US will never repay the loans. The American economy has been devastated by offshoring, by foreign competition, and by the importation of foreigners on work visas, while it holds to a free trade ideology that benefits corporate fat cats and shareholders at the expense of American labor. The dollar is failing in its role as reserve currency and will soon be abandoned.

When the dollar ceases to be the reserve currency, the US will no longer be able to pay its bills by borrowing more from foreigners.

I sometimes wonder if the bankrupt "superpower" will be able to scrape together the resources to bring home the troops stationed in its hundreds of bases overseas, or whether they will just be abandoned.



POSTED: 21 MARCH 2008 - 8:30am HST

Making the most of a global depression

by Richard Heinberg on
18 March 2008 in

It’s becoming increasingly likely that 2008 will go down in history as the year the Second Great Depression began.

The unraveling started with the subprime mortgage fiasco and is spreading fast. The total value of all US$-based mortgage bonds is $10.4 trillion, of which 30 percent is now expected to be lost in defaults and property devaluation. That’s $3.2 trillion in losses.

Trillions more are likely to evaporate from the related derivatives markets.
It’s true that the global economy is pretty big, and a few hundred billion get lost under sofa cushions from time to time (as happened during the savings and loan crisis of the 1990s), and still, life goes on. But when we’re discussing trillions of dollars (with a “T”), we’re talking real money.

Get ready for bank runs, a stock market collapse, and, perhaps, a money panic.
Such things have happened before (in 1833, 1837, 1857, 1907, 1920, and 1929), but this time it’s different. Now the problem is not just financial mismanagement; there is a deeper instability: the global economy is based on a fundamentally unsustainable exploitation of depleting natural resources, and that whole system is teetering. In his essay, “Barreling into Recession: How Oil Burst the American Bubble,” Michael Klare points out that:

“The economic bubble that lifted the stock market to dizzying heights was sustained as much by cheap oil as by cheap (often fraudulent) mortgages.”

Veteran geologist Colin Campbell, in his ASPO Newsletter #86, steps back for an even broader overview:

“The Oil Age opened 150 years ago, releasing a flood of cheap energy, such that today’s production is equivalent in energy terms to 22 billion slaves working around the clock. The resulting economic prosperity allowed the banks to lend more than they had on deposit, confident that Tomorrow’s Expansion was collateral for To-day’s Debt. It sounds a rather dubious principle but worked well enough during the First Half of the Oil Age allowing at least some countries to reap great prosperity. The Second Half now dawns, and being characterized by falling supply, effectively removes the Collateral for debt. . . . Whereas the post-peak physical decline of oil . . . is only gradual, . . . the perception that past economic growth must now give way to contraction can come in an instant, prompting radical changes in the financial world.”

So, as the oil drains away, the view is all downhill from here. A Depression is, well, depressing even to think about, much less to live through.

But wait a moment. For anyone with an ecological sensibility, the prospect of economic contraction has a silver lining. In a recent e-mail message, UBC Professor of Human Ecology Bill Rees summed up our collective situation this way:

“To raise the human enterprise ever further from thermodynamic equilibrium, we must degrade and dissipate ever-greater quantities of available energy and material resources extracted from the ecosphere. We have passed the point where the ecosphere can provide sustainably all that we are extracting. Resources are depleted; entropy accumulates. In effect, techno-industrial society has become pathologically parasitic on nature.”

The implication is clear: if we hope to survive as a species, and if there is to be hope for millions of other creatures, we need to shrink the human enterprise. Economic contraction may be bitter medicine, but it’s part of the cure for what ails our planetary home.

However, we can manage this contraction either foolishly or intelligently.
A foolish management of economic contraction would entail burning the biosphere for alternative fuels; propping up the banks and other financial institutions that created the mortgage mess, without ever re-examining the wisdom of growth-based economics; and responding to human privation and misery with repression and war.

Intelligent management would start with an explicit commitment to redesign the global economy to run with less. We would assess ecosphere resources and identify a humane, equitable path toward gradual reduction in population and total consumption levels. We would focus on those aspects of life that bring us increasing satisfaction without requiring more inputs of energy and materials. We would re-acquaint ourselves with the values and virtues of community, self-sufficiency, and modesty. We would redesign our cities to eliminate cars, while developing renewable energy sources and educating a new generation of ecological farmers.

If we handle this well, the medicine of contraction will leave Nature intact and humanity in a state of greater happiness, equity, and peace.

We don’t have much choice regarding whether a Depression will ensue. But a great deal depends on how we respond. It’s not too soon to start that discussion.Richard Heinberg is the author of "The Party’s Over" and "Peak Everything." He is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and lectures widely on sane responses to fossil fuel depletion.

see also:
Island Breath: The Banking Meltdown  3/7/08
Island Breath: Is this the Big One? 1/23/08
Island Breath: Real Estate Outlook 9/24/07
Island Breath: The Economics of Fantasy 4/19/06
Island Breath: After the Oil Runs Out  1/2/06