Here we go again. Maybe this will be the week that historians look back on and say, “That’s when it all started to get better. Geithner came out with his toxic asset bailout plan. China stimulated. Stock markets bottomed. The crisis ended and the world got better and better forever and ever.”
Or maybe not. We’ll just have to see. Either way, if Tim Geithner’s plan sends the market down five percent or more this week, we reckon it’s his last week on the job, which may be a relief to Mr. Geithner.
Kevin Rudd conceded that Australia’s economic fate is largely tied to forces beyond its control. In an interview with Channel Nine over the weekend he said, “A worsening global economic recession will make it virtually impossible for Australia to sustain a positive economic growth for the period ahead, with impacts, of course, for budget and employment.”
Of course. That means, by the way, February’s unemployment rate of 5.2% (the highest in four years) is probably headed higher. Not having worked in the private sector recently (or ever?) the Prime Minister may be underestimating how many of Australia’s businesses are prepared to shed jobs amidst uncertainty. “More than half of Australia’s mining and resource companies will fire staff in the next 12 months,” Bloomberg reports.
The “budget impact” will be a higher government deficit. True, it won’t be as bad as the A$13 trillion U.S. deficit over the next ten years. That’s what the Congressional Budget Office is projecting if Barack Obama’s spending plans go through Congress unchecked. It’s massive.
But a deficit is a deficit. The money has to be borrowed from someone. And it has to be paid back later, through higher taxes or more borrowing (not to mention the interest). It’s not a good habit to get into, living above your means because you are unwilling to cut back on your lifestyle.
In any event, the big news this week will be how markets receive U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s toxic asset plan. By all accounts, it sounds like Geithner wil make US$1 trillion (or thereabouts) available to hedge funds and private investors in order to buy aforesaid toxic assets from America’s banks.
“Here. Take this $1 trillion. Buy those bad assets. Benefit from the upside. We’ll take all the risk…What’s that? Why yes, of course I’m serious.”
If you’ve been paying attention to the way the U.S. Congress treated AIG executives during hearings last week, you’ll wonder why anyone of sound mind would want to become a business partner of the United States government. It’s a government that is now willing to change the laws to punish people of whom it disapproves. And before that, it’s a Congress that was willing to pass a thousand page stimulus package that no one had read.
Does anyone really believe these idiots have any idea what they’re doing? And does anyone believe private capital will hold hands with Uncle Sam and take his borrowed money to buy toxic assets?
On the face of it, using someone else’s money to take risk doesn’t seem so bad. But given the last few weeks in Washington, private investors would have serious doubts about whether any profits that might result from owning those assets would actually go to investors, or would be confiscated by the Congress. “Political risk” is the kind of investment risk you used to associate with dictatorial regimes in Africa, not democratic regimes on the Potomac. But there’s no doubt investors in America (like China and its US$700 billion in bonds) now face real political risk.
All of which is to say that the government is making investors more nervous and more risk averse. This is not the kind of indifference that comes with bottoms. This is the kind of panic that comes with crashes. There’s a chance that could change that week if the Geithner plan is well received and the morons in Congress put down their pitchforks. But if it doesn’t change for the better, it could change for the worse.
And even assuming the plan is well received, banks are still going to need more capital before they begin lending again. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan told investors at a conference in Acapulco Mexico that, “Restoration of normal bank lending will require a very large capital infusion from private or public sources.”
He puts this number somewhere “north” of US$750 billion.
A trillion here. A trillion there. Pretty soon you’re talking about a bankrupt America.
What all this means for Australia is still not quite clear. Australian banks are still lending for new mortgages and they don’t, on the surface anyway, appear to be having any trouble borrowing money themselves. We’re keeping an eye on both (lending and borrowing by the Big Four).
The huge American deficits make the U.S. dollar weak. The Aussie has been rising, as have gold and oil. Greenback weakness is commodity bullish (not across the board though). And Australia is not one of those countries that has pegged its interest rates to U.S. rates. That means Australia does not have to match U.S. rate cuts to keep its currency pegged (as is the case in some of the Gulf States, China, and other places).
So the good news is that Australia does not necessarily have to import inflation from the U.S. The bad news is that economic conditions are getting worse, not better, meaning that inflation might get to these shores anyway. If unemployment rises, stocks stay flat, and trade weakens, it wouldn’t surprise us to bigger government deficits with larger spending plans and more rate cuts. Growth in the money supply is inflation. It shows up later in higher prices.
And for housing? That’s what many Aussies treat as “Plan B.” It could be that you see a resurgence in house price inflation as Aussies turn away from the share market in favour of the myth of perpetually rising house prices. Although it may look appealing for awhile, it may not end well.
Two or three years down the track-maybe sooner if unemployment grows faster-we can see the Reserve Bank in the position of having to raise rates to contain inflation. It will have done so after hundreds of thousands of younger, marginal buyers have been sucked into the housing market with First Home Buyer grants. How will they cope with rising rates? How will they cope with falling prices? How will they cope with losing their jobs?
“Australia has certainly been a levered play on this global commodity boom and if we truly had been in a super-cycle, then it was a brilliant move,” Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley says. “But the global commodity boom has also gone bust, and this has caught Australia without much in the way of a diversification or a backup plan.”
More on how to actually diversify tomorrow.
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