Saturday, March 14, 2009

China 'worried' about U.S. Treasury holdings

By Joe McDonald
Associated Press

BEIJING - China's premier didn't say it in so many words, but the impled warning to Washington was blunt: Don't devalue the dollar through reckless spending.

Premier Wen Jiabao's message is unlikely to be misunderstood at the White House, which is counting on Beijing to help pay for its stimulus package by buying U.S. bonds. China already is Washington's biggest foreign creditor, with an estimated $1 trillion in U.S. government debt. A weaker dollar would erode the value of those assets.

"Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I'm a little bit worried," Wen said at a news conference Friday after the closing of China's annual legislative session. "I would like to call on the United States to honor its words, stay a credible nation and ensure the safety of Chinese assets."

The appeal suggested the outlines of Chinese President Hu Jintao's stance when he meets with President Barack Obama at an April 2 summit in London of the Group of 20 major economies on possible remedies for the global crisis.

Wen gave no indication whether Beijing wants changes in U.S. policy. But economists said his comments reflect fears that hihger U.S. budget deficits from Washington's $787 billion stimulus package could drive down the dollar and the value of China's Treasury notes.

In Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responded to Wen's concerns by saying the Chinese should rest assured because investments in the U.S. are the safest in the world.

Gibbs also said Congress can help by passing Obama's budget for next year, which promises to halve the deficit by the end of his term.

Analysts estimate China keeps nearly half of its $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves in U.S. Treasuries and notes issued by other government-affiliated agencies.

"Inside China there has been a lot of debate about whether they should continue to buy Treasuries," said Frank Gong, chief China economist for JP Morgan.

Beijing is trying to increase its leverage at the London G-20 meeting by remeinding its partners of its role in financing U.S. spending, Gong said.

Finance officials from the G-20 meet this weekend. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is pressing for a new coordinated global stimulus. Japan is supportive but European governments are reluctant to make expensive commitments before they see how current plans are working.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Short History of the National Debt

Deficits are nothing new. It's the trend that should worry us.

by John Steele Gordon

When President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 into law yesterday, he was adding to what is already almost guaranteed to be the largest deficit in American history. In January, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the deficit this year would be $1.2 trillion before the stimulus package. That's more than twice the deficit in fiscal 2008, more than the entire GDP of all but a handful of countries, and more, in nominal dollars, than the entire United States national debt in 1982.

But while the sum is huge, it is not in and of itself threatening to the solvency of the Republic. At 8.3% of GDP, this year's deficit is by far the largest since World War II. But the total debt is, as of now, still under 75% of GDP. It was almost 130% following World War II. (Japan's national debt right now is not far from 180% of that nation's GDP.)

Still, it's the trend that is worrisome, to put it mildly. There have always been two reasons for adding to the national debt. One is to fight wars. The second is to counteract recessions. But while the national debt in 1982 was 35% of GDP, after a quarter century of nearly uninterrupted economic growth and the end of the Cold War the debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled.
It is hard to escape the idea that this happened only because Democrats and Republicans alike never said no to any significant interest group. Despite a genuine economic emergency, the stimulus bill is more about dispensing goodies to Democratic interest groups than stimulating the economy. Even Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) -- no deficit hawk when his party is in the majority -- called it "porky."

It was not ever thus. Before the Great Depression, balancing the budget and paying down the debt were considered second only to the defense of the country as an obligation of the federal government. Before 1930, the government ran surpluses in two years out of three. In 1865, the vast debt run up in the Civil War amounted to about 30% of GDP; by 1916 it was less than a tenth of that.

There even was a time when the U.S. made it a deliberate policy to pay off the national debt entirely -- and succeeded in doing so. It remains to this day the only time in history a major country has been debt free. Ironically, the president who achieved this was the founder of the modern Democratic Party, Andrew Jackson.

Jackson was a Jeffersonian through and through. The smaller the federal government, the more he liked it. And, like Jefferson, he hated banks, speculation and the "money interest." Unlike Jefferson, however, he was born poor and made his own fortune. An early personal encounter with debt had taught him to fear it. When the notes of someone who had bought land from him proved worthless, he became liable for the debts he had secured with those notes, and it took him years to pay them off.

When he ran for president the first time, in 1824, Jackson called the debt a "national curse." He vowed to "pay the national debt, to prevent a monied aristocracy from growing up around our administration that must bend to its views, and ultimately destroy the liberty of our country."

"How gratifying," he wrote in 1829 as he began his presidency, "the effect of presenting to the world the sublime spectacle of a Republic of more than 12 million happy people, in the 54th year of her existence . . . free from debt and with all . . . [her] immense resources unfettered!"

When Jackson entered the White House, the national debt, which had reached $125 million at the end of the War of 1812, had already been reduced to $48 million. To get it to zero he was perfectly willing to forego what were then called "internal improvements" and are now known as infrastructure projects. One Kentucky congressman, after a trip to the White House to beg Jackson to sign one such bill, reported to his allies that "nothing less than a voice from Heaven would prevent the old man from vetoing the Bill, and [I doubt] whether that would!"

At the end of 1834, Jackson reported in the State of the Union message that the country would be debt free as of Jan. 1, 1835, with a Treasury balance of $440,000. Government revenues that year would be twice expenses.

It didn't last long, to be sure. The great prosperity of the early 1830s broke in the summer of 1836 when a bubble in land speculation, fueled by easy credit, abruptly ended. The bubble burst, ironically enough, thanks to Andrew Jackson's issuance of the "specie circular," which required that all land bought from the government, except that actually settled on, be paid for in gold or silver.

By the next spring, just as Jackson left the White House, the longest contraction in American history -- six years -- had begun. As one Wall Streeter put it, "The fortunes we have heard so much about in the days of speculation, have melted like the snows before an April sun." Federal revenues fell by half that year and the national debt was back, this time for good.

While today there is no hope of balancing the budget -- or wisdom in trying to -- until the economy substantially improves, we could make a sort of down payment on reforming Washington's porky ways by simply starting to tell the truth.

It has been widely noted that 2009 will have the first "trillion-dollar deficit" in American history. Actually it's the second. In fiscal 2008, the national debt increased from $9 trillion to slightly over $10 trillion. Yet the budget deficit in the last fiscal year was officially reported as being $455 billion. How could the national debt have increased by considerably more than twice the "deficit"? Simple. Just call the money borrowed from the Social Security trust fund an "intragovernmental transfer" and exclude it from the calculation of the deficit.
Corporate managers have gone to jail for less book cooking than that.

Mr. Gordon is the author of "Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt" (Walker, 1997).

Newest National Debt Statistics posted March 2009

From as of March 9, 2009.

Debt held by the public:

Intragovernmental holdings:


Interest payments
February 2009:

Fiscal Year 2009:

Gifts to reduce the public debt
January 2009:

Fiscal Year 2009:


($6,745,448,856.11 per day since January 20, 2009)

Ron Paul says to stop the spending

The following appeared on page 3A of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Monday March 9, 2009.

Remember Congressman Ron Paul, the long-term libertarian-like representative from Texas who sought the Republican presidential nomination last year and come within something like 1,000 delegates of upsetting John McCain?

Paul warned all during his campaign about a looming economic disaster if government just kept growing and growing and printing more money like Republicans and Democrats wanted.

Paul was on Bloomberg TV recently, and he patiently explained that we got into this national financial whirlpool by spending too much government money, and so the solution was probably not to spend even more money.

"We should be cutting spending. We should be trying to live within our means and not just try to spend our way out of a recession that was brought upon us by too much spending and too much borrowing and too much printing-press money," he said.

Paul also said the reason housing prices are falling is that there's too much housing on the market. So, Paul reasons, instead of spending hundreds of billions of deficit dollars to build more houses, making hte supply even larger, politicians should risk unpopularity, cut spending and taxes and let the market settle out.
- New York Times and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report

Monday, March 9, 2009

Forbes: The U.S. Financial System Is Effectively Insolvent

Nouriel Roubini

For those who argue that the rate of growth of economic activity is turning positive--that economies are contracting but at a slower rate than in the fourth quarter of 2008--the latest data don't confirm this relative optimism. In 2008's fourth quarter, gross domestic product fell by about 6% in the U.S., 6% in the euro zone, 8% in Germany, 12% in Japan, 16% in Singapore and 20% in South Korea. So things are even more awful in Europe and Asia than in the U.S.

There is, in fact, a rising risk of a global L-shaped depression that would be even worse than the current, painful U-shaped global recession. Here's why:

First, note that most indicators suggest that the second derivative of economic activity is still sharply negative in Europe and Japan and close to negative in the U.S. and China. Some signals that the second derivative was turning positive for the U.S. and China turned out to be fake starts. For the U.S., the Empire State and Philly Fed indexes of manufacturing are still in free fall; initial claims for unemployment benefits are up to scary levels, suggesting accelerating job losses; and January's sales increase is a fluke--more of a rebound from a very depressed December, after aggressive post-holiday sales, than a sustainable recovery.

For China, the growth of credit is only driven by firms borrowing cheap to invest in higher-returning deposits, not to invest, and steel prices in China have resumed their sharp fall. The more scary data are those for trade flows in Asia, with exports falling by about 40% to 50% in Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

Even correcting for the effect of the Chinese New Year, exports and imports are sharply down in China, with imports falling (-40%) more than exports. This is a scary signal, as Chinese imports are mostly raw materials and intermediate inputs. So while Chinese exports have fallen so far less than in the rest of Asia, they may fall much more sharply in the months ahead, as signaled by the free fall in imports.

With economic activity contracting in 2009's first quarter at the same rate as in 2008's fourth quarter, a nasty U-shaped recession could turn into a more severe L-shaped near-depression (or stag-deflation). The scale and speed of synchronized global economic contraction is really unprecedented (at least since the Great Depression), with a free fall of GDP, income, consumption, industrial production, employment, exports, imports, residential investment and, more ominously, capital expenditures around the world. And now many emerging-market economies are on the verge of a fully fledged financial crisis, starting with emerging Europe.

Fiscal and monetary stimulus is becoming more aggressive in the U.S. and China, and less so in the euro zone and Japan, where policymakers are frozen and behind the curve. But such stimulus is unlikely to lead to a sustained economic recovery. Monetary easing--even unorthodox--is like pushing on a string when (1) the problems of the economy are of insolvency/credit rather than just illiquidity; (2) there is a global glut of capacity (housing, autos and consumer durables and massive excess capacity, because of years of overinvestment by China, Asia and other emerging markets), while strapped firms and households don't react to lower interest rates, as it takes years to work out this glut; (3) deflation keeps real policy rates high and rising while nominal policy rates are close to zero; and (4) high yield spreads are still 2,000 basis points relative to safe Treasuries in spite of zero policy rates.

National Debt Clock