The Housing Chronicles Blog: Enough dithering: we need more action

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Enough dithering: we need more action

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, International Business Editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard argues that moves by the Federal Reserve and the Bush Administration not only have failed, but that the contagion in credit markets could very well spread far beyond U.S. shores:

The verdict is in. The Fed's emergency rate cuts in January have failed to halt the downward spiral towards a full-blown debt deflation. Much more drastic action will be needed...

Why won't it end? Because US house prices are in free fall. The Case-Shiller index for the 20 biggest cities dropped 9.1pc year-on-year in December. The annualised rate of fall was 18pc in the fourth quarter, and gathering speed.

As the graph shows below, US households are only halfway through the tsunami of rate resets - 300 basis points upwards - on teaser loans.

graph: US households are only halfway through the tsunami of rate resets
UBS says the cost of the credit debacle will reach $600bn. "Leveraged risk is a cancer in this market."

Try $1trillion, says New York professor Nouriel Roubin. Contagion is moving up the ladder to prime mortgages, commercial property, home equity loans, car loans, credit cards and student loans. We have not even begun Wave Two: the British, Club Med, East European, and Antipodean house busts.

As the once unthinkable unfolds, the leaders of global finance dither. The Europeans are frozen in the headlights: trembling before a false inflation; cowed by an atavistic Bundesbank; waiting passively for the Atlantic storm to hit...

Half the eurozone is grinding to a halt. Italy is slipping into recession. Property prices are flat or falling in Ireland, Spain, France, southern Italy and now Germany. French consumer moral is the lowest in 20 years...

"There probably will be some bank failures," said Ben Bernanke. He knows perfectly well that the US price spike is a bogus scare, the tail-end of a food and fuel shock.

"I expect inflation to come down. I don't think we're anywhere near the situation in the 1970s," he told Congress.

Indeed not. Real wages are being squeezed. Oil and "Ags" are acting as a tax. December unemployment jumped at the fastest rate in a quarter century.

The greater risk is slump, says Princetown Professor Paul Krugman. "The Fed is studying the Japanese experience with zero rates very closely. The problem is that if they want to cut rates as aggressively as they did in the early 1990s and 2001, they have to go below zero."

This means "quantitative easing" as it was called in Japan. As Ben Bernanke spelled out in November 2002, the Fed can inject money by purchasing great chunks of the bond market.

Section 13 of the Federal Reserve Act allows the bank - in "exigent circumstances" - to lend money to anybody, and take upon itself the credit risk. It has not done so since the 1930s.

Ultimately the big guns have the means to stop descent into an economic Ice Age. But will they act in time?

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