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Central Banks Attempt to Hold Off New Credit Crisis

Jul 06, 2012

Central banks apparently coordinated their efforts to pump money into the global financial system on Thursday. They worked together closely in the 2008 Credit Crisis as well. The Fed's potential action may be limited this time around however.

There was another confirmation of an emerging credit crisis yesterday as central banks in various parts of the globe took coordinated action to pump money into the financial system. The banks involved though claimed it was mere coincidence that they all acted at the same time.

Central banks are generally only interested in dealing with their own internal matters. On occasion though, they act together as they did in October 2008 at the height of the Credit Crisis. Massive stimulus from lower interest rates and quantitative easing finally allowed the markets to put in a bottom six months later.

On Thursday, the People's Bank of China cut its key lending rate by 31 basis points (a basis point in one-hundredth of a percent) to 6%. This was a previous cut less than a month ago. Manufacturing has been declining for months now in China and there are some estimates that GDP will barely be above 7% this quarter. While this would be enviable for any North American or European economy, below 7% growth would feel recessionary in China. Lowering interest rates is not without risk for China since the country also has a massive real estate bubble and this will continue to feed it.

At the same time that China was cutting rates, the ECB cut its refinancing rate to 0.75% from 1.00%. Its bank deposit rate however was lowered to zero (obviously not much room to maneuver left there). While the ECB has still not fully implemented ZIRP (zero interest rate policy), which Japan and the United States have now maintained for years, it is so close that the difference is irrelevant for all practical purposes. The Bank of England did not lower its 0.50% benchmark rate, but instead raised the ceiling on its current round of quantitative easing by 50 billion pounds. They've obviously come to the conclusion that once rates have gotten close to zero, money printing is the only way to go.

Absent in any obvious way from yesterday's action was the U.S. Federal Reserve. It already had its monthly meeting at the end of June and announced an extension of Operation Twist (an attempt to drive 10-year yields lower even though they had already hit all-time lows on June 1st). The market bulls were claiming that the Fed would announce a third round of quantitative easing, but they didn't. The Fed is also going to have trouble engaging in more QE in the near future because the U.S. is once again near its debt limit. The national debt is now over $15.8 trillion and the debt ceiling is $16.4 trillion. The two will come together at some point this fall. To implement quantitative easing, the Fed has to buy newly issued Treasuries. When the debt ceiling is reached, there won't be any. It took months to raise the debt ceiling last time and it is likely to be just as contentious an issue this time as well.

The current global financial crisis is centered in Europe and nothing has been fixed there. The EU has been trying to keep 10-year bond yields below the critical 6% level in Spain and Italy since last summer. They have utterly failed in the case of Spain. Spanish 10-year governments were over 7% in June (higher than last fall, which was in turn higher than last summer). After being driven down close to 6% twice in the last two weeks, the yield was as high as 7.04% today. Italian 10-years traded at 6.08%. Rates continually above 6% mean that Spain and Italy will need bailouts, but the necessary money will have to be printed. Germany holds the keys to the printing press however and may not let them be used.

Stock markets worldwide have held up remarkably well considering there are serious problems in the financial system and the global economy is weak. Liquidity from central banks is responsible for this. However markets have a tendency to revert to realistic prices and if they aren't allowed to do that gradually, they will do so suddenly.

Disclosure: None

Daryl Montgomery
Author: "Inflation Investing - A Guide for the 2010s"
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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