The administration’s presumption that America can borrow its way to prosperity has taken a couple of big hits over the last couple days.
First, just as the Third World debt crisis destroyed the belief among international bankers that countries don’t go bankrupt, so is the West’s borrowing binge ending the belief among international investors that the U.S. and other Western nations are safe economic bets.
Britain was warned by Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service that it may lose its coveted triple-A credit rating, triggering a drop in U.K. bonds and sparking global fears about the consequences of massive debts being incurred by the U.S. and other major nations as they try to dig out from the economic crisis.
The announcement quickly sent waves across the Atlantic. Investors initially dumped U.K. bonds and the pound, heading for the relative safety of U.S. Treasurys. But within hours, worries about an onslaught of new U.S. bond sales and the security of America’s own triple-A rating drove down the prices of U.S. Treasurys.
The yield of the benchmark U.S. 10-year bond, which moves in the opposite direction to the price, rose by 0.15 percentage point from Wednesday to 3.355%, its highest level in six months.
The relative gloom about the U.K. and the U.S. was apparent Thursday in the market for credit-default swaps, where investors can buy and sell insurance against sovereign defaults. Five years of insurance on $10 million in U.K. debt jumped to around $81,000 a year, from $72,000 earlier in the day. U.S. debt insurance cost the equivalent of $37,500 — in the same range as France at $38,000, and Germany at $35,000.
A shot across the bow of the American ship of state, some analysts have called it.
But shots also were being fired from another direction: East Asia. The Chinese are starting to have doubts about Uncle Sam’s creditworthiness. Reports the New York Times:
Leaders in both Washington and Beijing have been fretting openly about the mutual dependence — some would say codependence — created by China’s vast holdings of United States bonds. But beyond the talk, the relationship is already changing with surprising speed.
China is growing more picky about which American debt it is willing to finance, and is changing laws to make it easier for Chinese companies to invest abroad the billions of dollars they take in each year by exporting to America. For its part, the United States is becoming relatively less dependent on Chinese financing.
Financial statistics released by both countries in recent days show that China paradoxically stepped up its lending to the American government over the winter even as it virtually stopped putting fresh money into dollars.
This combination is possible because China has been exchanging one dollar-denominated asset for another — selling the debt of government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in a hurry to buy Treasuries. While this has been clear for months, new data shows that China is also trading long-term Treasuries for short-term notes, highlighting Beijing’s concerns that inflation will erode the dollar’s value in the long run as America amasses record debt.
The national debt is over $11 trillion. This year’s deficit will run nearly $2 trillion. Next year the deficit is projected to be $1.2 trillion, but it undoubtedly will run more. The administration projects an extra $10 trillion in red ink over the coming decade.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need more money. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is in trouble. The FDIC will need more cash to clean up failed banks. The effectively nationalized auto companies will soak up more funds. Then there’s the more than $70 trillion in unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities.
But don’t worry, be happy!