News & Current Affairs

February 24, 2009

US recession ‘may last into 2010’

US recession ‘may last into 2010’

US Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke has warned Congress that without the right policies from the government, the US recession could last into 2010.

But he said if the Obama administration and the central bank can restore some measure of financial stability, 2010 could be a year of recovery.

Mr Bernanke made the comments to the Senate Banking Committee.

He also warned that the global nature of the downturn was a threat because exports would be hit.

In its attempts to revive the economy, the Federal Reserve has cut its key interest rate to nearly zero, while the Obama administration has recently signed a $787bn (£546bn) economic stimulus package.

Mr Bernanke said that the potential economic turnaround would hinge on the success of such measures in getting credit and financial markets to operate more normally again.

“Only if that is the case, in my view there is a reasonable prospect that the current recession will end in 2009 and that 2010 will be a year of recovery,” he said.

Vicious circle

Mr Bernanke reassured legislators that he was, “committed to using all available tools to stimulate economic activity and to improve financial market functioning”.

But he also outlined long-run predictions for the economy, which he said reflected “the view of policymakers that a full recovery of the economy from the current recession is likely to take more than two or three years”.

He described a vicious circle of rising unemployment and shrinking house prices and savings forcing consumers to cut back, which would in turn increase unemployment.

“To break that adverse feedback loop, it is essential that we continue to complement fiscal stimulus with strong government action to stabilise financial institutions and financial markets,” he said.

Speaking of the concern about bankers benefiting from bail-outs, he added that the country “ought not abstain from saving the financial system just because it rewards people who erred”.

Sliding confidence

Mr Bernanke’s testimony came shortly after data showed that consumer confidence in February had fallen to the lowest level since the Conference Board began reporting the figures in 1967.

Its sentiment index fell to a much worse-than-expected 25.0 in February from January’s figure of 37.4.

“We just got the worst consumer confidence number ever on record,” said Matt Esteve, a foreign exchange trader at Tempus Consulting in Washington.

“Following yesterday’s awful sell-off in the stock market, it just highlights the risk that there is right now.”

House prices

There were also figures showing that the decline in US house prices had accelerated.

The S&P Case Shiller house price index showed the price of a single-family home had fallen 18.5% in December, compared with the same month of 2007.

It was the biggest drop since the index began being calculated 21 years ago.

“There are very few, if any, pockets of turnaround that one can see in the data,” said David Blitzer, chairman of S&P’s index committee.

“Most of the nation appears to remain on a downward path.”

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November 25, 2008

US Fed unveils new $800bn rescue

US Fed unveils new $800bn rescue

A US home that has been repossessed

The Fed’s aim is to prevent a deep economic slump

The Federal Reserve is to pump $800bn (£526.8bn) into the markets in another bid to deal with the financial crisis.

The US central bank said it would use $600bn to buy-up mortgage-backed securities to help encourage lending.

Separately the Fed also unveiled a $200bn plan to help unfreeze the consumer credit market.

As the credit crisis has deepened, banks and other financial institutions have been reluctant to lend, deepening the economic slowdown.

Under this new rescue plan – which is in addition to the already-announced $700bn bank bail-out – the Fed is to buy up to $100bn in debt from the troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The central bank said it would also buy another $500bn in mortgage-backed securities – pools of mortgages that are bundled together and sold to investors.

New bail-out

The $600bn effort on mortgages came as the Fed also unveiled a separate program to help unfreeze the consumer debt market.

The central bank said it would lend up to $200bn to the holders of securities backed by various types of consumer loans, such as credit cards and student loans.

The Fed said that the $600 billion effort to support the mortgage market was being taken to reduce the cost of home mortgages and increase their availability.

It said the purchases of the mortgages and mortgage-backed securities would take place over a number of months.

The severe financial crisis that is rocking global markets at the moment began more than a year ago with rising defaults on subprime mortgages, loans provided to borrowers with weak credit histories.

‘Unblocking credit’

Recently, Treasury secretary Henry Paulson had indicated that the government was working on this new program, which will be supported by $20bn of credit protection provided by the existing $700bn bank bail-out fund.

The news of this latest massive financial rescue plan was generally welcomed.

“They are getting to the heart of the problem, it’s clean, it’s quick, it’s direct. It’s a good way to bring down mortgage rates, because at the end of the day they have to stabilise the housing market,” said Todd Abraham of Federated Investors, Pittsburgh.

Robert Macintosh, chief economist with Eaton Vance, Boston, said: “If they can pull it off it’ll make some people happy, but I don’t know how effective it’ll actually be.”

Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James Associates, Florida, said: “Here is the Fed taking a bunch of debt out of the market, which doesn’t hurt. I think it should it should help unblock the credit markets.”

November 20, 2008

Asia markets follow US share drop

Asia markets follow US share drop

Man walking past share board

Concerns are increasing over the scale of the slowdown

Asian markets have plummeted after the Dow Jones share index in New York fell to its lowest level in five years, amid fears of a protracted global recession.

Japan’s Nikkei index ended 6.8% down and Hong Kong’s main index fell 5.5%.

Data showing Japan’s exports to Asia dropped in October for the first time since 2002 added to fears over the scale of the economic downturn.

On Wednesday, Wall Street shares fell 5% after the US central bank slashed its economic growth forecasts for 2009.

‘No positives’

Japan and other Asian nations are heavily reliant on exports.

Sales to other Asia nations have helped to limit the impact for Japanese exporting firms suffering from lower demand from the US and Europe.

But exports to Asia fell 4% last month from a year earlier, showing the extent of the global slowdown.

Several East Asian countries – including Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong – are already in recession and the thought that the US may be about to join them has been enough to send shares tumbling across the region.

Man walks past an electronic share price board in Toyko, Japan, 20 November 2008

Share prices in Tokyo and elsewhere slumped

Bad news from the US worries Japanese firms like Toyota and Nintendo which usually depend on American consumers to make a lot of their profit, our correspondent adds.

“We’ve gone past the poor sentiment stage,” Miles Remington, head of Asian sales trading at BNP Paribas Securities in Hong Kong, told the Associated Press news agency.

“People are looking for any kind of positive and there are just no positives out there. Everyone seems to be united in the depressed global outlook. Whether it’s commodities or equities, everything seems to be on a downturn.”

US slowdown

On Wednesday, the US Federal Reserve said the country’s gross domestic product – the value of all goods and services – could be flat or grow only marginally this year, and might shrink in 2009.

It said positive economic growth was only likely to return in 2010 and predicted further interest rate cuts might be necessary.

Month-on-month US consumer prices fell by 1% in October – the biggest drop in 60 years – which has reinforced fears of rapid slowdown.

Car problems

Carmakers were among the biggest fallers as the Dow Jones average closed down 427 points at 7,997 on Wednesday – dropping below the 8,000-level for the first time since 2003.

GM shares were down 15% at a 66-year low, while rival Ford slumped to a 26-year low.

Prospects for an industry bail-out remain uncertain and politicians have been arguing over a compromise deal.

Chief executives from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler say the firms could collapse unless they receive aid fast – which could lead to millions of job losses across the US.

But the automakers have faced fierce questions on Capitol Hill about their request for a $25bn (£16.6bn) bail-out deal.

Investors are concerned about how a possible bankruptcy among US carmakers could further hurt an already fragile economy.


What is your reaction to the stock market losses? Have you been affected by the downturn? You can send us your experiences

October 3, 2008

House set for fresh bail-out vote

House set for fresh bail-out vote

Pedestrians outside the New York Stock Exchange on Wall St (02/10/2008)

President Bush has said the bill is the best chance of rescuing the economy

The US House of Representatives is preparing to vote on a $700bn (£380bn) plan to rescue the US financial sector.

Party leaders are hoping the House, which stunned global markets by rejecting the initial plan, will follow the Senate and back a new version.

The House began debating the deal on Friday morning and is expected to vote later in the day.

The Senate bill added about $100bn in new tax breaks in the hope of gaining more support from House Republicans.

The New York stock exchange opened shortly after the debate began and the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped more than 100 points in early trading.

But earlier in Japan, shares fell to a three-year low. The Nikkei index closed down more than 1.9%, its lowest level since May 2005.

In Europe, shares were relatively flat. In early afternoon trading the UK’s FTSE 100 was down just 18 points, France’s Cac 40 was down nine and Germany’s Dax up seven.

The financial volatility continued on Friday as US bank Wells Fargo announced it would buy troubled rival Wachovia in a $15.1bn (£8.5bn) deal.

The US also reported its biggest monthly job loss in more than five years.

Bush plea

In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, has said no vote will be scheduled until the party feels it will pass.

NEW MEASURES IN BAIL-OUT BILL
Increased protection for saving deposits
Increased child tax credits
More aid for hurricane victims
Tax breaks for renewable energy
Higher starting limits to alternative minimum tax

“We’re not going to take a bill to the floor that doesn’t have the votes. I’m optimistic that we will take a bill to the floor,” she said.

When the House first rejected the plan on Monday – by 228 votes to 205 – legislators had concerns about both the content of the plan and the speed with which they were being asked to pass it.

President George W Bush has since urged the House to back his revised bill.

The package is aimed at buying up the bad debts of failing institutions on Wall Street.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties are pressing their members in the House to swing behind the revised bill and party leaders expect it to pass.

This thing, this issue, has gone way beyond New York and Wall Street
President George W Bush

Some members have called for more amendments, which opens up the prospect of further horse-trading up to the point at which votes are cast.

Pressure will particularly be applied to the 133 House Republicans who went against party affiliation to reject President Bush’s bill, correspondents say.

Tennessee Republican Zach Wamp, one of those who voted against the bill on Monday, said he would now vote in favor of the measure despite ordinary Americans remaining “as mad as heck” at the situation on Wall Street.

“You have got to do what you think is right. I thought the right thing Monday was to vote no. And I think the right thing to do tomorrow is to vote yes.”

The bill successfully passed through the Senate on Wednesday after it was amended to raise the government’s guarantee on savings from $100,000 to $250,000.

It also now includes tax breaks to help small businesses, expand the child tax credit and extend help to victims of recent hurricanes.

Most importantly, it extends the tax break aimed at boosting the provision of alternative energy such as wind farms.

It also includes a number of so-called “pork-barrel” measures including tax cuts for rum manufacturers in Puerto Rico and the owners of racetracks.

The additional cost of these unrelated tax breaks – which could add $100bn to the bill – have worried some fiscally conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives.

October 1, 2008

Senate urged to back crisis bill

Senate urged to back crisis bill

Wall Street, file pic

Shares remain volatile ahead of Wednesday’s key vote

Democratic and Republican Senate leaders have appealed for a new version of a $700bn (£380bn) Wall Street bail-out to be approved in a key vote.

Republican Mitch McConnell said it would shield Americans from “shockwaves of a problem they didn’t create”.

The plan needs support in the Senate and House of Representatives, which rejected a similar bill on Monday.

Senate Democrat Harry Reid said he hoped a strong show of bipartisanship would “spark the House to do the same”.

President George W Bush has been speaking to senators ahead of the vote. The White House said it hoped to see “strong support for the bill”.

“It’s critically important that we approve legislation this week and limit further damage to our economy,” said spokesman Tony Fratto.

US presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama are returning from the campaign trail for the vote, which is due to begin late on Wednesday.

Revised proposal

Global shares were mixed in Wednesday trading ahead of the vote.

By early afternoon on Wall Street the Dow Jones was down 0.2% or 30 points.

CHANGES TO BILL
Raises government’s guarantee on savings from $100,000 to $250,000
Tax breaks to help small businesses and promote renewable energy
Expansion of child tax credit and help for victims of recent hurricanes

But hopes that enough changes had been made to get the bill through saw shares close up strongly in Asia on Wednesday.

In Europe, the UK’s FTSE 100 finished 1.1% higher at 4,959.6 points, France’s key index added 0.6% while German shares fell.

Changes to the rescue plan involve lifting the US government’s guarantee on savings from $100,000 to $250,000 and a package of targeted tax breaks.

They are designed to answer critics who felt the original plan was weighted too much in favour of Wall Street while not enough was being done to help struggling American families.

To get through the Senate, the bill will require backing by 60 of the 100 senators. It would then return to the House of Representatives for a vote on Thursday or Friday.

Some members of Congress continue to press for more fundamental changes to the bill.

President Bush has warned of “painful and lasting” consequences for the US should Congress fail to agree a rescue plan.

The House’s rejection of the earlier version of the plan on Monday led to sharp falls on world stock markets.

In other developments:

  • The European Union outlines its own proposals for reforming banking regulation which, if approved, could see dramatic changes to the way in which banks operate
  • Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says the “irresponsibility” of the US financial system is to blame for the crisis
  • Ireland’s government discusses a move to guarantee all bank deposits with the EU Competition Commissioner

‘Painful recession’

In election campaigning on the eve of the vote, Mr McCain and Mr Obama urged politicians of both parties to work together to pass the emergency legislation.

Speaking in Reno, Nevada, Mr Obama warned that without action by Congress “millions of jobs could be lost, a long and painful recession could follow”.

John McCain campaigns in Iowa, 30 Sept

John McCain said inaction by Congress was putting the US at risk

He added: “There will be a time to punish those who set this fire, but now is the moment for us to come together and put the fire out.”

Mr McCain, who campaigned in Des Moines, Iowa, said inaction by Congress had “put every American and the entire economy at the gravest risk” and that Washington urgently needed to show leadership.

“I am disappointed at the lack of resolve and bipartisan goodwill among members of both parties to fix this problem,” he said.

The vote comes a day before a TV debate between vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

Mr Biden, Mr Obama’s running mate, is also expected to take part in the Senate vote.

Meanwhile, ex-President Bill Clinton is to hold his first rally for Mr Obama.

Mr Clinton, whose wife Hillary lost to Mr Obama in a fierce primary contest for the Democratic nomination, is due to appear in Florida, where he will encourage people to register as voters before a deadline on Monday.

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