Monday, March 17, 2008

Weekly Economic Recap

The Federal Reserve captured headlines again, as it tried to stave off another potential credit-market seizure. In this latest go-around, the Fed pledged to lend, in return for unsellable mortgage-backed securities, $200 billion of Treasury notes to banks and investment firms that trade directly with the central bank. The scuttlebutt suggests the Fed acted to save investment-banking behemoth Bear Stearns, which had been unable to secure credit against its massive portfolio of mortgage-backed securities.

These securities matter to Main Street as much as to Wall Street; they provide the source funding for the mortgage market, which is why Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are trying mightily to halt a cycle in which the losses on mortgage investments cause banks to cut their lending, possibly sending the economy into a recession.

Unfortunately, the recalcitrant housing market isn't cooperating. Home foreclosure filings in February edged down from January, but were a whopping 60% higher than a year earlier, according to real estate data firm RealtyTrac. Unfortunately, the mortgage-backed securities market can't improve until the housing market improves.
And as for the recession, some believe the fight is over – and the Fed lost. Separate surveys by Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal show the majority opinion believes we are in a recession. The opinion isn't without merit: The Commerce Department reported that retail sales fell 0.6% in February. The decline reflects a sharp slowdown in consumer spending, which accounts for more than 70% of U.S. economic activity, as Americans grapple with high fuel and food costs and declines in home values and other asset prices.

The good news is that inflation appears to have abated, which seems improbable given soaring oil prices. Nonetheless, it has. The consumer price index showed no increase in consumer prices for February. The benign CPI reading gives the Fed wiggle room to again cut interest rates – a likely event after Tuesday's Federal Open Market Committee meeting (where the Fed sets the federal funds rate).

Eric P. Egeland

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