Tuesday, November 24, 2009

US government--lender or borrower of last resort?


And over at The Financial Times in London, Gillian Tett asks “Will sovereign debt be the next sub-prime?”

Everyone knows what when wrong with sub-prime. When you lend money to people who can’t pay it back, you’re asking for trouble. So, if you’re out of a job and looking for a sub-prime loan to buy a double-wide trailer you’re out of luck. Bankers won’t give you a dime.

But now, the world’s lenders are doing something just as dumb. They’re lending to governments. Imagine you were a banker. And the US government comes to you for a loan.

“Do you have enough income to cover the payments,” you ask.

“Well, no,” comes the answer. “In fact, our revenue has fallen off a little. Because of the recession, you know. Like everyone else.”

“How bad is it?”

“Uh…we spend nearly two dollars for every dollar of income.”

“Oh…and you expect us to lend you money? What do you have for collateral? What is your net worth position?”

“We were hoping you wouldn’t ask. The most recent tally of our obligations comes to $113 trillion.”

“Well, don’t you have assets?”

“We have some buildings in Washington…military bases around the world…things like that. But as a practical matter, you could never foreclose on them.”

“Oh, I see…”

What is interesting is that the world’s investors are beginning to see that the US and many other governments are bad credit risks. This is an extraordinary event. Until now, the US government has been able to finance and refinance its debts at the lowest rates in three generations. Lenders have wanted to lend the feds money, because they believed they were the safest credits in the world.

Bankers can always be counted on to find the worst investments at the worst time. They are at the tail end of the chain of insights that begins with the sharpest, most independent-thinking analysts…runs through the broker/hedge fund community…passes on to the financial journalists and the TV pundits…arrives at the lumpeninvestoriat through the popular media…and finally gets to bankers when they pick up the Wall Street Journal and read about what’s going on.

Now, the bankers are buying sovereign debt – government paper – because they think it offers a “risk free” return. In fact, it is one of the riskiest investments you can make.

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