US remains on borrowed time

You don't hear much about the European debt crisis any more, let alone the threat of the euro collapsing or even Greece going under. So is it finally safe out there?
By · 25 Sep 2013
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25 Sep 2013
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You don't hear much about the European debt crisis any more, let alone the threat of the euro collapsing or even Greece going under. So is it finally safe out there?

"Safer" is the best you could say. The financial system is less shaky than when the global financial crisis broke out five years ago but it's not fixed either.

The lax lending that was the American sub-prime crisis oozed into every nook and cranny of global banking, as dud mortgages were packaged up as "you beaut" investments, with the top credit rating no less, and flogged to unsuspecting councils and even rival banks.

Once the real estate bubble popped, the big American and European banks were in strife, especially as they'd been huge buyers of European sovereign bonds as well. Financial markets froze when no bank would lend to another, one fearing it might be even more strapped for cash.

Europe's crisis came about because its banks could no longer finance the ever-increasing government debt without putting themselves in jeopardy. They've since been nationalised, recapitalised and, for all I know, homogenised but the sovereign debt is still there, lying in wait. It's only because the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, said he'd do anything to save the euro, by which he meant he'd print more, that the markets have backed off. For now.

Better still, they adore US Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke's money hit. Oops, I mean "quantitative easing".

American banks were also recapitalised and re-regulated after being rescued by the authorities in a good cause - to keep capitalism going. If only the problem were poor regulations or even the shoddy supervision of them.

Not that unbridled greed when things are going well or mind-numbing fear when they're going bad helps.

No, a basic economic flaw was exposed by the GFC: a feature of every financial crisis is easy money - it's just how it's made that changes. The markets were flooded with money even before QE was launched. Its source was the huge trade imbalance between the US and China, exacerbated by a misaligned exchange rate. China was accumulating gigantic trade surpluses and reserves of US dollars and these were mostly recycled into US bonds and securities, driving down rates and pushing up asset values. This was carte blanche for the financial markets to run rampant. So they did. Rates were dragged down, those who shouldn't borrow could, and Wall Street had the ride of its life.

So what's changed? There's less sub-prime lending and the US lost its AAA credit rating. And the economic imbalance is as big as ever. All that's happened is the US has joined Europe with its public debt problem and sooner or later this will cause massive market convulsions.

In fact, at the end of the month, financial markets will have to cope with the annual September shutdown showdown between President Obama and Congress.

The US government will run out of money - or rather the authority to borrow it - because a new fiscal year starts on October 1.

Although this always gets resolved in the nick of time, a few weeks later the US hits its mandated debt ceiling and won't be able to borrow full stop.

That'll be one you won't want to miss.

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