Collapsing home prices and credit markets continue to put downward pressure on consumer spending, forcing the Federal Reserve to take even more radical action to revive the economy. Last week, Fed chief Ben Bernanke raised the prospect of further monetizing the debt by purchasing more than the $1.75 trillion of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) already committed. The announcement sent shock-waves through the currency markets where skittish traders have joined doomsayers in predicting tough times ahead for the dollar. Foreign central banks have been gobbling up US debt at an impressive pace, adding another $60 billion in the last three weeks alone. That’s more than enough to cover the current account deficit and put the greenback on solid ground for the time-being. But with fiscal deficits ballooning to $3 trillion in the next year alone, dwindling foreign investment won’t be enough to keep the dollar afloat. Bernanke will be forced to either raise interest rates or let the dollar fall hard.
Export-led nations are looking for an edge to revive flagging sales by keeping their currencies undervalued. But the strong dollar is making it harder for Bernanke to engineer a recovery. He’d like nothing more than to see the dollar tumble and reset at a lower rate. That would reduce the debt-load for homeowners and businesses and send consumers racing back to the shopping malls and auto showrooms. Perception management is a big part of stimulating the economy. That’s why the financial media has been air-brushing articles that focus on deflation and shifting the attention to inflation. It’s an effort to kick-start consumer spending by convincing people that their money will be worth less in the future. But deflation is still enemy number one. Rising unemployment, crashing home prices, vanishing equity and tighter credit; these are all signs of entrenched deflation.
Bernanke faces three main challenges to put the economy back on track. He must remove the hundreds of billions in toxic assets from the banks balance sheets, reignite consumer spending to offset the sharp decline in aggregate demand, and fix the wholesale credit-mechanism that provides 40 percent of the credit to the broader economy. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has taken over the distribution of the remaining TARP funds, and created a new program, the Public-Private Investment Partnership (PPIP), for purchasing toxic mortgage-backed assets. The PPIP will provide up to 94 percent “non-recourse” government loans for up to $1 trillion of assets which are worth less than half of their original value at today’s prices. The Treasury’s plan is an attempt to keep asset prices artificially high so that the losses will not be realized until they’ve been shifted onto the taxpayer. Here’s how John Hussman of Hussman Funds summed up Geithner’s PPIP:
“From early reports regarding the toxic assets plan, it appears that the Treasury envisions allowing private investors to bid for toxic mortgage securities, but only to put up about 7% of the purchase price, with the TARP matching that amount – the remainder being “non-recourse” financing from the Fed and FDIC. This essentially implies that the government would grant bidders a put option against 86% of whatever price is bid. This is not only an invitation for rampant moral hazard, as it would allow the financing of largely speculative and inefficiently priced bids with the public bearing the cost of losses, but of much greater concern, it is a likely recipe for the insolvency of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and represents a major end-run around Congress by unelected bureaucrats.
Make no mistake – we are selling off our future and the future of our children to prevent the bondholders of U.S. financial corporations from taking losses. We are using public funds to protect the bondholders of some of the most mismanaged companies in the history of capitalism, instead of allowing them to take losses that should have been their own. All our policy makers have done to date has been to squander public funds to protect the full interests of corporate bondholders. Even Bear Stearns bondholders can expect to get 100% of their money back, thanks to the generosity of Bernanke, Geithner and other bureaucrats eager to hand out the money of ordinary Americans.” (John Hussman, “The Fed and Treasury – Putting off Hard Choices with Easy Money, and Probable Chaos, hussmanfunds.com) Read the rest of this entry »