Tag: borrowing

“They Don’t Have the Money to Pay Us Back”

When they let their guard down, politians can say the most revealing things.  In today’s Wall Street Journal, representatives of local governments in California attacked Governor Schwarnenegger’s plan to borrow $2 billion from local property tax revenues to cover some of the state’s budget shortfalls.  In response, Don Knabe, chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisiors said, “They’re hijacking our dollars.  They don’t have the money to pay us back.  It’s a joke.” 

Given that California doesn’t have the money to pay back borrowing from its local government, it’s likely they might not be able to pay back borrowing from private investors either.  To solve this problem, we have the Municipal Bond Insurance Enhancement Act, on which the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing this week.  To encourage investors to buy California’s risky debt, the federal government would cover any losses to the investor.  We’re told that the federal government would charge bond-issuing governments insurance premiums to cover any losses, but the federal government’s history of setting rates based on politics rather than risk (have you looked at the health of the National Flood Insurance Program lately?) guarantees that the taxpayer would likely have to cover billions in losses on any guarantee of California’s debt.

Who’s Going to Buy Your Debt, Mr. President?

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.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

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!

Love the Cards, Hate the Card Issuers

God hates the sin but loves the sinner, we are told.  Americans have a similar attitude towards credit cards.  They love the cards but hate the card issuers.

Naturally, President Barack Obama has picked up on this sentiment and wants the credit card companies to be “fair.”  Reports the Washington Post:

The Obama administration yesterday called for an end to unfair credit card industry practices such as retroactive interest rate increases for any reason, late-fee traps that penalize borrowers with weekend or middle-of-the-day deadlines and teaser rates that last less than six months.

In a written statement released by the Treasury Department, the administration outlined practices it would like Congress to reform as it considers two bills that would crack down on the industry. One proposal would force card companies to apply payments above the minimum amount to the highest interest rate debt. To crack down on over-limit fees, the administration would also like Congress to require card companies to get customers’ permission to set up accounts so transactions over the limit can still be processed.

There are lots of reasons to criticize the practices of  credit card companies, but many of the rules are simply mechanisms to charge riskier borrowers more.  If you pay off your bill every month, you don’t pay the extra fees and interest.  If you are more disorganized, short on cash, or both, you pay more. 

Higher charges make it possible to provide more credit to more people.  Of course, politicians believe in the latter but not the former.  Banks should provide credit cards, make loans, and issue mortgages to everyone, irrespective of credit standing, at rates akin to those charged Bill Gates.  Anything more is viewed as a variant of “predatory” lending deserving condemnation.

Maybe it would be best for some people not to buy so much on credit, but that isn’t – at least so far – the government’s decision.  However, it would be more honest if government branded people with the Scarlet C and banned them from borrowing than prohibiting companies from charging higher rates and fees to reflect higher credit risks.

The credit card debate is stranger than most in Washington.  Listening to critics you’d think that the card companies were dragooning people off the streets, forcing them at gunpoint to sign up for cards, and demanding that they spend money else their children will be kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Precisely who was forced to accept and use these terrible cards with their terrible terms?  No one.

Instead of posturing as defenders of the body politic, crusading politicians should, as my friend Don Boudreaux of George Mason University suggested,  give up their day jobs and start credit card companies.   These entrepreneurs then could offer consumers better cards with less onerous terms, making everyone better off.

Any takers?

More Cheap Money from the Fed

The Federal Reserve announced that it would create $1.2 trillion out of thin air and use it to buy mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds, even though

Some Fed leaders have resisted buying Treasurys in the past because they were unsure whether it would help reduce borrowing costs and because they feared that it would appear that the central bank was simply printing money to finance the government’s deficit, a hallmark of countries with poorly managed economies.

Who’s Going to Buy All the U.S. Treasuries?

With Uncle Sam having to sell trillions of dollars worth of treasuries to finance all of the bailouts, stimuli, and normal wasteful spending, no one is sure whether foreign demand will continue.  The Chinese have bluntly questioned the safety of their U.S. holdings, and foreign demand has fallen in recent months.  Writes Brad Setser:

I wanted to highlight one trend that I glossed over on Monday, namely that foreign demand for long-term Treasuries has disappeared over the last few months. Consider a chart showing foreign purchases of long-term Treasuries over the past 3 months. Incidentally, the split between private and official purchases in this data should largely be ignored. The revised (i.e. post-survey) data generally have attributed nearly all the flow from 2003 to the official sector.

The rolling 3m sum bounces around a bit, but foreign demand for long-term Treasuries in November, December and January was as subdued as it has been for a long-time. Among other things, that fall in foreign demand for long-term Treasuries after October suggests — at least to me — that the big Treasury rally late last year (and subsequent sell-off this year) doesn’t seem to have been driven by external flows. Foreigners weren’t big buyers of long-term Treasuries back when ten year Treasury yields fell to around 2%.

It’s difficult to accurately predict future demand.  But U.S. borrowing will be truly staggering in coming years.  If international demand is down, the Treasury will have to rely on American investors.  Whether the domestic market can easily absorb so much debt – and particularly, to what extent federal debt offerings will crowd out private investment during what we hope will be a recovery – are questions that our spendthrift leaders have not bothered trying to answer.