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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Could Japan inadvertently start a run on America's credit?

Florida-based professional investor Karl Denninger comments on a rumour that Japan is considering selling U.S. government bonds ("Treasuries"). He reflects that such a move could begin a run on U.S. Treasuries, and the largest holder by far is China, who some think may have up to $1 trillion of U.S. debt.

A selloff would put pressure on the U.S. to raise interest rates, and this could have a domino effect in other countries. Higher interest rates make businesses' finance tougher, as well as hitting their customers' disposable income and therefore reducing demand for goods and services. So a crisis of faith in America's ability to repay its debts, and to maintain the exchange value of the dollar, could plunge the world economy back into recession. The investment outlook in this scenario would not be positive.

Denninger is a long-standing Cassandra on the U.S. economy, but he has a fairly sizeable following in the American personal investment community and despite his tendency to express himself in stark terms, his views and information should not be lightly dismissed.

A further reason to take him seriously is what has been happening between China and its U.S. debtors. It's been said some time ago, that China has been selling the debt of U.S. States and corporations in favour of U.S. Treasuries, because the latter are fully backed by the American Government. In retrospect, this seems to have been a very prudent move, since a number of U.S. States are now having significant difficulty in balancing their budgets, owing to a shrinking tax income and rising bills for unemployment benefit. It's understood that China has also been selling longer-term Treasuries to buy shorter-dated ones, because the latter offer an earlier exit should America's credit rating and currency weaken. So the notion that China might suddenly need or want to sell off Treasuries, is not entirely implausible.

On the other hand, America is China's best customer and if the dollar fell sharply or consumer spending reduced even more severely than it has already done, this would hit Chinese exports and increase unemployment in China, which is already a significant problem. It is in both parties' interests to manage the situation. The wider picture, many believe, is a long economic decline in the West as the East develops markets closer to its home, but at this stage everyone will prefer an ebbing tide to a tsunami in reverse.

Perhaps we should instead expect a slowing in the rate at which U.S. debt to China is increasing; and maybe an increasing reluctance on the part of the Chinese to purchase new Treasuries when the old ones mature.

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2 comments:

JohnofEnfield said...

The US trade deficit HAS gone on too long to be sustainable for much longer. The same is true for the UK's.

One day there MUST be a reckoning (in every sense of the word).

Why not now?

Sackerson said...

Welcome, John. I suppose that the government of the day will always do their best try to put off the day of reckoning. So the coup de grace will come from the bond markets.