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How Default Would Harm Homeowners, Cities, Businesses And Everyone Else

It’s easy to understand why the government will have more trouble borrowing if it fails to pay its debts, or even has a difficult time paying its debts. It’s a bit harder to see why ordinary Americans, the city of Pittsburgh, hospitals in Iowa, and medium-sized corporations will have more trouble borrowing. But they will. And their trouble borrowing is the main channels through which a default, or even something too close to it for the market’s comfort, could deal a body blow to the economy.

On Wednesday, Moody’s warned that it was putting the U.S. government credit rating on review for a downgrade. But they didn’t stop there. Another 7,000 debt products that are “directly linked to the U.S. government or are otherwise vulnerable to sovereign risk” were also put on review for a possible downgrade. That’s about $130 billion worth of debt. If America tumbles, so do they. But Moody’s still wasn’t done. An unknown amount of “indirectly linked” debt is also getting reviewed.

If America’s credit rating falls, it’s taking a lot more than just Treasury securities with it. It’s going to take the whole credit market with it. Which, as you’ll remember, is exactly how the subprime housing sector took the economy down in 2008.

The first to fall will be “directly linked” debt. These are bonds that rely on payments from the federal government. Naomi Richman, a managing director in Moody’s Public Finance division, puts it bluntly: “There are certain kinds of municipal bonds that are directly reliant on Treasury paying or some other direct payment,” she says. “If those bonds don’t receive their payment, they have no other source of revenue.” So down they go.

Then there’s the “indirectly linked” debt. That’s debt from state government, local governments, hospitals, universities and other institutions that rely, in some way or another, on payments from the federal government. If Medicaid stops paying its bills, all the hospitals that rely on Medicaid’s payments become less creditworthy. If we stop funding Pell grants, then all the universities that enroll students who pay using financial aid become less creditworthy. And since the federal government passes one-fifth of its revenues through to the states, and the states pass those revenues through to cities, if the federal government stops paying its bills, all states and all cities are suddenly in worse financial shape, which will make it harder for them to get loans.

And then there’s everything else. Mortgages. Credit cards. Loans that businesses take out to expand. Much of the debt in the American economy, and in fact globally, is “benchmarked” to Treasury debt. When your bank quotes you a mortgage rate, the calculation begins with the rate on 10-year treasuries and then adds premiums for various types of risk specific to you and your area on top of that. “There’s a whole credit structure,” says Pete Davis, president of Davis Capital Investment Ideas. “Think of it as roads and bridges, but it’s finance, it’s all connected, and it’s all on top of treasuries. Your CD at a bank, your credit card interest rates, your car loans, your mortgages — that’s all built on Treasury rates. So when you shake the basis of it, everything on top of it shakes, too.”

The 2008 economic crisis wasn’t started by a nuclear bomb detonating in New York, or a campaign to sabotage the country’s factories, or a plague that struck our able-bodied young males. Rather, investors bought a lot of debt based on subprime mortgages. They performed some tricky financial wizardry that they thought made the debt low-risk. They found out they were wrong. And then, because the players in the financial system no longer knew how much money anyone had, the credit markets froze and the economy crashed.

Now imagine that happening, not with the housing market, but with the government of the United States of America. The cornerstone of the global financial economy is the idea that Treasuries are risk-free. If they’re not, then like in the financial crisis, no one knows how much money anyone who holds treasuries has. But they also don’t know how much money anyone who depends on the federal government — be they businesses or individuals — holds.

This is how a default gets into the rest of the economy: It takes everything the financial markets thought they could know and rely on and upends it. It then shuts off credit, or makes it prohibitively expensive, for nearly every participant in the economy, from states and cities to hospitals and universities to homebuyers and credit-card applicants. That, in turn, freezes all of their activity, which destabilizes everyone who relies on them, which then destabilizes financial markets further, and so on.

It was one thing to have forgotten that this sort of thing could happen in 2006, when America hadn’t seen it for 70 years. But we just went through it. And if we go through it again, the Federal Reserve, which has pushed interest rates as low as they can go, and Congress, which has vastly expanded the deficit, have a lot less ammunition left for a response.

Are we likely to get to that point? No, of course not. But between here and there are worlds where the economy doesn’t crash, but because the federal government panics the market, interest rates rise and the economy slows. In a recovery this weak, that would be a disaster. And it would be entirely of our own making.

By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, July 15, 2011

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July 17, 2011 Posted by | Banks, Budget, Businesses, Congress, Conservatives, Consumer Credit, Consumers, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Financial Institutions, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicaid, Middle Class, Politics, Public, Republicans, Right Wing, States | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Walking Away From The Truth: GOP Playing With Matches On The Debt

Just ignore Tuesday’s vote against raising the debt ceiling, House Republican leaders whispered to Wall Street. We didn’t really vote against it, members suggested; we just sent another of our endless symbolic messages, pretending to take the nation’s credit to the brink of collapse in order to extract the maximum concessions from President Obama.

Once he caves, members said, the debt limit will be raised and the credit scare will end. And the business world apparently got the message. It’s just a “joke,” said a leader of the United States Chamber of Commerce, and Wall Street is in on it. Not everyone found it funny.

No matter how they tried to spin it, 318 House members actually voted against paying the country’s bills and keeping the promise made to federal bondholders. That’s an incredibly dangerous message to send in a softening global economy. Among the jokesters were 236 Republicans playing the politics of extortion, and 82 feckless Democrats who fret that Republicans could transform a courageous vote into a foul-smelling advertisement.

The games that now pass for governing in an increasingly embarrassing 112th Congress are menacing the nation’s future. It was bad enough when Republicans threatened to shut down the government to achieve their extreme and extremely misguided spending cuts, but that threat would have caused temporary damage. The debt limit is something else altogether. If the global credit markets decide that the debt of the United States will regularly be held hostage to ideological demands, it could cause significant harm to investment in long-term bonds and other obligations. That, in turn, could damage domestic credit markets and easily spark another recession.

To prevent this from happening, 114 Democrats in April asked for a “clean” vote without conditions. But Republicans were not about to set their hostage free. Knowing that the clean vote would not pass — and imposing a two-thirds majority requirement to ensure its failure — House Republicans gave the Democrats what they requested. They then voted it down, sending their reckless message to the world.

But there was no excuse for so many Democrats to go along with that message, including the leadership. Steny Hoyer, the minority whip, urged his members to vote no so they would not “subject themselves to a political 30-second ad attack” with all Republicans voting no. Apparently Mr. Hoyer did not trust voters to understand what a dangerous and dishonest game the Republicans are playing.

The exercise has prompted the White House to convene talks to discuss the Republicans’ scattershot demands, which have ranged from trillions in spending cuts to the outright dismantling of vital safety-net programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats have hoped to get an increase in revenues out of any deal, but House Republican leaders emerged from a White House meeting on Wednesday spouting the usual discredited claims that higher taxes on the rich would impede job growth.

What Republicans seem unwilling to acknowledge is that the debt-limit debate is not about future spending. It is about paying for a deficit already incurred because of two wars and tax cuts approved by both Republicans and Democrats at the behest of a Republican president. Tuesday’s vote was a chance to do the right thing and educate the public on why it was necessary. Instead, too many lawmakers walked away from the truth.

June 2, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Democrats, Economy, Elections, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Medicaid, Medicare, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, Taxes, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Standard And Poor’s Is The Broker Who Lost All Your Money: There Is No Real Risk Of Default

What does Standard & Poor’s action lowering the U.S. outlook to “negative” mean? What are the likely ramifications of the U.S. deficit and debt? I do not want to conflate two completely different issues, so let’s take each in turn.

First, I have stopped paying any attention to anything that S&P says or does. Its performance over the past decade has revealed it to be incompetent and corrupt – it sold its AAA ratings to the highest bidder. It is the broker who lost all your money, the girlfriend who cheated on you, the partner who stole from you. Since the portfolios we run never rely on its judgment or analysis, we simply do not care what it says about credit ratings.

But big bond managers like Bill Gross of Pimco do matter – he invests hundreds of billions of dollars. We pay close attention when smart managers like him announce they are out of the Treasury market, which he did last month.

Many people misunderstand the U.S. deficit. First, it is stimulative to both the economy and the markets. Look at what happened under Reagan and Obama and most of Bush II – the economy recovered from recession and the markets rose along with the deficit.

Second, Social Security is fine. Sure, the retirement age will go higher, there will be means testing, and the income cutoff for contributions ($106,000) will likely double. But it will remain solvent. Medicare is much trickier, as the United States pays two times what most countries pay for health care but gets lesser care.

The current debate about deficits looks like more politics. Look at the voting records of those posturing about the debt. The “deficit peacocks” voted for new entitlements (the prescription drug benefit — Medicare Part D), went along with a trillion-dollar war of choice in Iraq, and supported (for the first time in U.S. history) a major tax cut during wartime. I find it hard to take their deficit noise as a bona fide fiscal concern.

After Standard & Poor’s missed the greatest collapse in history – indeed, they helped create it by rating junk mortgage backed securities Triple AAA – they are now over-compensating. As I mentioned on The Big Picture, there is an old Wall Street joke about analysts: “You don’t need them in a Bull Market, and you don’t want them in a Bear Market.” That especially seems apt with regard to S&P.

The deficit has been with us for a long time. Since investors are continuing to lend money to Uncle Sam at exceedingly low rates, there does not appear to be any real fear of a default. That is what matters most to bond buyers — and it’s why I never care what S&P thinks on this.

By: Barry Ritholtz, The New York Times, April 18, 2011

April 19, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Consumers, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Economic Recovery, Economy, Federal Budget, Financial Institutions, Financial Reform, Government, Government Shut Down, Lawmakers, Medicare, Politics, Social Security, Standard and Poor's, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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