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US economy on the brink

The self-created mirage of recovery that helped sustain the tattered remnants of the American Dream evaporated yesterday as reality came calling.

The desperate measures taken to halt the imminent sacking of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers was only one event in a day of reckoning.

Five stark paragraphs comprising the statement issued by the Federal Reserve – America’s central bank – reek of the stench of exhausted defeat. The first outlines the problem. It needs no interpretation:

Information received since … June indicates that the pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed in recent months. Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit. Business spending on equipment and software is rising; however, investment in non-residential structures continues to be weak and employers remain reluctant to add to payrolls. Housing starts remain at a depressed level. Bank lending has continued to contract. Nonetheless, the Committee anticipates a gradual return to higher levels of resource utilization in a context of price stability, although the pace of economic recovery is likely to be more modest in the near term than had been anticipated.

In the action paragraphs, the committee explains that base interest rates will be kept at their historic low, but reiterates that “resource slack”, which means massive overcapacity in production, eliminates any hope of anything changing for years or decades to come.

In what is seen as a reversal of previous policy, the Fed is intent on printing even more money in a bid to stimulate the economy. It plans to use the income from repayments on mortgages it bought during the financial meltdown of 2008 to pump out more dollars.

If nothing else it gives a new meaning to recycling. Once the money has been captured from American families, the figures just keep moving around inside the Federal Reserve’s computers. Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics called the decision a "symbolic gesture".

Yesterday, Obama recalled the members of the House of Representatives back from their summer recess so that they could pass an emergency bill approving $26bn (£16.4bn) funds for states which have run out of money, and $16.1bn to extend funding for the Medicaid healthcare programme for low-income Americans.

Without the emergency aid, states would have laid off police, teachers and firefighters and all of the key services would have ceased functioning. The states themselves have suffered during the recession through a loss of revenue through sales and property taxes. The aid will only get them through the current financial year, however.

Those who claim that public spending is the answer to the economic crisis have had their fingers burnt by the US experience. Obama’s government has spent trillions in various stimulus packages – all to no avail.

That’s because the crisis of capitalism is global and marked by the classic symptoms of over-production, over-capacity and falling demand. The boom was artificially fuelled by mountains of credit and debt which inevitably proved unsustainable and led to the implosion of the financial system. Without easy credit, consumers are in general spending what money they have on necessities like food and shelter.

It all adds up to the American economy being on the brink of collapse, adding to the sense of political crisis gathering around the Obama presidency.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
11 August 2010

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