Spending Freeze, Fed Scepticism, Political Gridlock a.k.a. “Hitting a Wall”

Markets have been sending stronger signals over the past few days:

  • The Dollar has continued to extend its rally as expected.
  • US stocks have dropped by over 5% in very short time
  • Chinese and other foreign stocks are beginning to lose ground again after a short bounce

Economic data most recently indicated that existing home sales suffered the biggest slump in 40 years:

Sales of previously owned homes took their biggest tumble in at least 40 years last month as the impact of a buying spree spurred by a tax credit for first-time buyers waned, according to industry data released Monday.

Those who rushed to meet the original November deadline to take advantage of an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers caused a surge in sales earlier in 2009, but left the market wobbly by the end of the year. First-time buyers, who made up more than 50 percent of sales earlier last year, represented just 43 percent of the market in December. The shift also resulted in fewer sales of lower-cost homes, which first-time buyers typically seek.

After three months of increases, sales of existing homes, including condos and single-family residences, fell 16.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.45 million in December compared with the previous month, according to National Association of Realtors data. That was a bigger drop than analysts had expected and the lowest sales rate since August. It was also the biggest monthly decrease on records that date to 1968, according to the industry group.

The December decline “was payback for the tax credit,” said Patrick Newport, an economist for IHS Global Insight.

… once the tax credit incentive vanishes home prices will head south again, this is really something that intuitively nearly everyone I talked to knew from the get go, the only question is how much longer Congress wants to keep extending it. It seems like they don’t have a whole lot more to play with.

Today, the Obama administration leaked plans for a spending freeze:

President Obama will call for a three-year freeze in spending on many domestic programs, and for increases no greater than inflation after that, an initiative intended to signal his seriousness about cutting the budget deficit, administration officials said Monday.

The officials said the proposal would be a major component both of Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday and of the budget he will send to Congress on Monday for the fiscal year that begins in October.

The freeze would cover the agencies and programs for which Congress allocates specific budgets each year, including air traffic control, farm subsidies, education, nutrition and national parks.

Last but not least, there is growing skepticism among lawmakers about Ben Bernanke and of course the Federal Reserve in general:

Even if Mr. Obama and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, get the 60 votes necessary to surmount a threatened filibuster against Mr. Bernanke, the Fed appears to have taken a hit to its reputation.

“The public’s confidence in the Fed has been dramatically eroded, and that’s not good,” said Laurence H. Meyer, a former member of the Fed’s board of governors who runs a consulting firm, Macroeconomic Advisers. “The vulnerability of the Fed to a loss of independence is higher than it’s ever been. And the chairman’s credibility with Congress is very low, and that’s not good for the institution.”

… but of course good for the American people, I may add.

Not that any of the things I outlined above will change anything as far as the general direction of government growth and power grabbing is concerned. But in the short run it clearly looks like they are hitting a wall right here and now, at least it is hard to find many signs to the contrary.

As I explained before:

The key thing to keep in mind in all of this: The recent rally, green shoots, and recovery hopes have been created and/or fueled by massive government expenses, and by a believe in the omnipotence of our leaders in Washington.

But government spending sprees, too, will have to come to an end sooner or later. On top of that, all that the recent government programs have accomplished is to get marginal individuals back to the same flawed habits, such as owning unaffordable homes, buying too many cars, etc.

The interest that the government has to pay on its debts when it runs up sky high deficits, and the taxes it will have to raise in order to make those payments, will be hanging over the recovery like a Damocles Sword. The Federal Reserve, too, will be faced with a similar situation. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that lending activity on homes, cars, etc. were to pick up again. What will the Fed do then? Cut interest rates? Add more bank reserves? Surely not, quite the opposite.

Once existing stimulus programs and credit expansion attempts subside, there won’t be much left to pick up the slack. The consumer won’t be able to go back to business as usual unless he goes through a long period of reduced consumption, deleveraging, and savings, a period during which the majority of production and spending inside the US will have to be focused on capital goods, so as to restore a balanced ratio between the production of consumer goods and the production of capital goods.

At the point when these government stimuli wind down, Keynesian clowns will be jumping out of the bushes left and right, and demand that the government take on more debt and spend more money. But at some point their mindless tirades will no longer appeal to an overtaxed and overleveraged populace. Their ivory tower nonsense will be way too far detached from simple realities.

Any temporary recovery we witness now, is likely to be remembered as just that, a temporary phenomenon. All actions taken so far have set the perfect stage for a double dip recession of enormous proportions, the worst possible prolongation of the necessary correction.

If it was our dear government’s objective to repeat the playbook from the Great Depression one by one, then they have indeed succeeded phenomenally.

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