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美国:负债上限争论或致经济倒退3年

Brendan Coffey 2011年07月04日

即便不出现美国国债违约,这场争论早已损及美国企业界,可能抹杀近两年来之不易的进展。

    美国政府在8月2日的截止日期仍将无力偿还美国国债本息。对此市场反应不一,既有“违约是令美国财政回复正轨所必须的一剂苦口良药”的观点,又有不切实际的论调,称“违约事实上会对美国国债有帮助,因为人们总是在时局不太好的时候买入国债”。

    然而,大多数人的反应都是不以为意。乍看上去美国国债市场也较为平静:由于投资者们认定美国出现违约的可能性低于希腊引发欧债危机蔓延的可能性,上周2年期美国国债的收益率降至近历史低点。

    美国国债市场也许是正确的。美国联邦政府违约近似于教皇宣称耶稣可能不存在。这种事一旦发生便不可挽回,不管事后如何矢口否认。美国财政部长盖特纳对此心知肚明,因此将尽一切可能避免违约。一旦违约,意味着当前购入半数美国国债的外国投资者至少会将一部分钱移到其他地方,从而推高美国融资成本,令美国的财政问题更加复杂化。盖特纳的纸面戏法已为其赢得了一些时间——原本负债上限会在5月份触及——而更多的腾挪技法将能延后违约风险。但这正是问题所在。

    美国财政部如何拓展还本付息的资金来源?出售资产。美国财政部拥有6,000亿美元的MBS证券、政府支持机构票据、学生贷款和与不良资产救助计划(TARP)相关的投资。虽然坚称未涉入腾挪操作(在负债上限下),但美国财政部的贱卖早已启动,3月底就已宣布开始降价出售1,400亿美元的MBS组合。随着美国财政部启动出售,MBS市场上也出现了抛售,这绝非巧合。几周内,MBS已缩水达25%,抹去了一年的涨幅,受损者主要是华尔街投资银行。

    由于美国财政部资产负债表上的其他证券额是上述MBS组合的四倍——足以支撑约半年的常规偿债需求——进一步资产出售可能会进一步损害投资银行。一旦投资银行开始亏钱,他们就会收拾收拾、撤出企业融资市场,以削减敞口。

    贷款中介机构称,只有在2011年,信贷评级次高、持有大量现金的企业才能像2008年以前那样相对从容地获得基本业务活动(如满足付薪需求)贷款。如果美国财政部增加资产出售,银行对企业的贷款将减少,随后消费者信贷也将缩减——这两项副作用将不利早已疲弱的美国经济。

    这种情况正好与量化宽松背道而驰:属于量化紧缩。即便不出现违约,8月份前如果不达成一致,近两年来之不易的一些进展也很可能付之一炬。比如,可以试想一下如果美国财政部为满足付息要求,决定出售TARP项下所持的140亿美元通用汽车(GM)股票,该股股价将会怎样。前景大为不妙。

    因此,如果华盛顿的“勇敢者游戏”(game of chicken)继续,哪里是避风港呢?别指望欧洲,意大利的违约风险仍切实存在。当然也不可能是质量相对较高的法国和德国国债,过去一年很多机构投资者已买入了这些国债。法国和德国的银行业有庞大的欧洲不良贷款敞口。大宗商品将呈现一定强势,但黄金和原油占据了本可用于消费的资金,也不会带来收益——从养老基金到央行等债券持有人都依赖固定收益。

    一些获最高评级的公司债券,如强生(Johnson & Johnson)和微软(Microsoft)发行的债券,可能会改善,至少短时期内如此。但除非美国国会在进入夏季休会期前就上调负债上限达成一致,并提供降低赤字的长期路线图,否则2011年余下时间可能重现2008年的情景。

    Come August 2, the U.S. government will be unable to pay its bond obligations. This simple fact has generated various reactions, from the view that defaulting is a necessary, if bitter, pill to get the country on the right fiscal path, to the quixotic claim that a default will actually help Treasuries because people always buy government notes when times are bad.

    Mostly, however, the reaction has been a shrug of the shoulders. A glance at the Treasury market shows little fear: yields on the two-year note fell to close at an all-time low last week, as investors bet a U.S. default is less likely than a European debt contagion being sparked by Greece.

    The Treasury market, at least, is probably right. Default by the federal government is akin to the Pope suggesting that maybe there wasn't a Jesus Christ. Once that happens, it can't be taken back, no matter how earnestly you proclaim otherwise afterwards. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner understands this, and will do anything to avoid that fate. Default means foreign investors, who buy half our Treasuries these days, would direct at least some of their money elsewhere, driving up U.S. borrowing costs and thereby compounding the country's fiscal problems. Already Geithner's bookkeeping magic has bought extra time—the ceiling was originally going to be hit in May—and more juggling will extend the default danger out. And that's a problem.

    How does the Treasury create more room to make its interest payments? By selling assets. The Treasury has $600 billion in mortgage-backed securities, agency paper, student loans and TARP-related investments. While insisting it has no connection to creating room beneath the debt ceiling, the Treasury already started a fire sale, announcing at the end of March it was going to begin selling off its $140 billion MBS portfolio. It is no coincidence that the sell-off underway in the MBS market started as the Treasury began selling. MBS values have dropped as much as 25% in just a few weeks, wiping out a year's worth of gains, primarily for Wall Street investment banks.

    With four times that amount of other securities on the Treasury balance sheet—enough to fund normal debt-related activities for about half a year—further sales will likely make the investment banks suffer even further. And when investment banks start losing money, they pull up stakes and evacuate from the corporate lending market to cut their exposure.

    Loan brokers report it's only been in 2011 that corporate borrowers with less than the best ratings and largest cash holdings have been able to borrow with relative pre-2008 ease again to finance basic activities, such as meeting payroll. If Treasury asset sales increase, bank lending to companies will decrease, followed by a shrinking of credit lines to consumers—two side effects that will stall an already sluggish economy.

    Think of it like the opposite of Quantitative Easing; it's Quantitative Tightening. Even if there is no default, avoiding it without an agreement ahead of August could very well undo all the painful steps of the past two years. For one, think what happens to GM (GM) stock when the Treasury sells the $14 billion in shares it holds from TARP to meet an interest payment. It's not pretty.

    So where is the safe haven if Washington's game of chicken continues? Don't look to Europe, where default remains a real concern in Italy. And it's certainly not with higher-quality French and German bonds, where many institutional investors have moved into over the past year. Their banks have large exposure to bad European loans. Commodities will see some strength, but bars of gold and barrels of oil cost money to store and don't generate income, something holders of bonds from pension funds to central banks rely on.

    There's a chance that some top-rated corporate bonds, such as those issued by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Microsoft (MSFT), will improve, at least for a short time. But unless Congress enters its summer vacation with a deal to raise the debt ceiling and offer a roadmap to lower deficits in the long-run, the past of 2008 will prove to be a prologue to the rest of 2011.

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