After six years of non-stop deficit spending that has added $8.2 trillion to the national debt, the U.S. Treasury has announced that it expects to reduce the country's debt by $35 billion this quarter.
Given that national debt growth has rocketed past $16.7 trillion and is on track to exceed $17 trillion at some point in the fall, a $35 billion reduction is laughably tiny. It's just 0.02% of what we as a nation owe.
And in the very same statement, the Treasury admitted that in the following quarter it expects to be back to borrowing as usual - $223 billion worth, more than six times the amount it plans to pay down this quarter.
So why bother?
"I don't believe in coincidences," said Money Morning Chief Investment Strategist Keith Fitz-Gerald. "Our leaders in Washington on both sides of the aisle are terribly under pressure from the American public right now, and I think this is a very convenient announcement to say, "Hey, we're doing the right thing, keep us all in office for a little while longer.'"
And apart from any political motivations, Fitz-Gerald wonders whether the plan to pay down $35 billion of the national debt can even be considered legitimate, given the way the government borrows money from itself.
"It's like taking blood from the left arm and putting in in the right arm and calling it a transfusion," Fitz-Gerald said.
Investing in Financial Stocks: Is Now the Time to Bank on C, COF, BAC or JPM?
Based on recent performance from the sector's biggest names, it's easy to argue that financial stocks are making a comeback.
Capital One Financial Corp. (NYSE: COF) is up 27% in 2012. Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) is up 29%. Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) is up a whopping 59%.
Indeed, a survey of 184 analysts conducted by Bloomberg News in January expected bank profits to rise 57% in 2012.
"The banks could get some positive operating leverage in 2012 from trading normalizing and expenses normalizing," Chris Kotowski, an Oppenheimer & Co. (NYSE: OPY) analyst, told Bloomberg.
Kotowski expects an 18% earnings-per-share increase for each of the six major investment banks.
But guess what? A year ago that same survey of analysts predicted profits would climb 32% in 2011.
Instead, financial stocks were the worst performers among 10 industries tracked within the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.
So far in 2012, however, financial stocks are the second leading sector in the S&P 500 with an 18% gain. That compares to an 11% gain by the broader market.
In short, whether you are looking at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) or the entire financial sector, last year's losers have suddenly become this year's winners.
So is it time to take some chips off the table, or is now the time to double down for the long term?
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The Banks Win, Again
Finally, some well-deserved help for beleaguered monster banks is on its way.
Make that, well on its way.
Those poor big banks accidently and inadvertently got caught up making so many easy loans to deserving, hard-up borrowers, who wanted to buy overpriced dream homes, and a few million other folks who deserved two homes and McMansions to keep up with the Joneses (you know the Joneses... most of them were "friends of Angelo").
But now, at last, the banks are making profits again.
After suffering the indignity of insolvency and near collapse for all their hard work, the New Samaritans are still being haunted by their generosity, as regulators hound them into settlement submission, merely for doing God's work.
So, what's the good news?
The second quarter may be a good one for the three biggest servicer banks, namely Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), and - the little bank that could, run by that kid named Jamie - JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM).
What's strange is that these do-gooders are being helped by some of the same government folks who are still attacking them in public venues where voters hang their hats.
What's not strange is that tons of underwater homebuyers, who are drowning in debt on dwellings whose prices have fallen 30% to 40%, aren't blaming banks and are running to their rescue.
Okay, maybe they're not running, maybe it's more that they're being corralled, like sheep. But either way, they are helping banks fatten their profits pools (make that bonus pools) again.
They're repaying the banks' favor of giving them loans in the first place by coming (more like being forced) back to the banks to get refinanced on better terms.
But they're not doing it on their own. The banks have a partner helping to round up their old customers and corral them into the breeding profits barn.
That Partner is HARP 2.0The original Home Affordable Refinance Program, which was launched in April 2009, failed miserably (because there was nothing in it for banks). But the powers that be (the banks... DUH) harped for a new HARP, and they got it last November.
The new program is known as HARP 2.0 (that's because it's twice as profitable for the big banks that sunk the economy and the world under Housing Bubblemania 1.0).
Okay, enough sarcasm; let me slice and dice this succinctly for you.
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As Greek Debt Default Nears, Investors Need to Take Cover
At this point a Greek debt default is virtually unavoidable, and it could happen in a matter of weeks.
The ensuing chain reaction will upend markets around the world and will almost surely lead to more defaults among the European Union's (EU) other debt-plagued nations, collectively known as the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain).
The bond markets have already passed sentence, with the yield on two-year Greek bonds spiking to an astronomical 76% yesterday (Tuesday). Yields on 10-year Greek bonds rose to 24%.
By comparison, the 10-year bond yields of another PIIGS nation, Italy, rose to 5.74%. Meanwhile, bond yields for the EU's strongest economy, Germany, have dropped below 2%.
The credit default swap (CDS) markets, where investors can insure their bond purchases against default, agree with the bond markets' verdict. As of Monday it cost $5.8 million and $100,000 annually to insure $10 million worth of Greek debt for five years, which means the CDS market now considers default a 98% probability.
Most European stock markets have been hammered over the past several weeks, with some dropping as much as 25%.
"Default is inevitable," said Money Morning Global Investment Strategist Martin Hutchinson. "Greeks are paid about twice as much as they should be, and that gap can't be solved by austerity."
How Soon is NowIn recent weeks Germany has shown more reluctance to dig deeper into its own pockets to bail out Greece and the other PIIGS. At the same time, Greece has struggled to implement the austerity measures that are required if it is to continue receiving aid from the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Greece's budget deficit has increased 22% this year, while its economy is projected to shrink more than 5%.
Every new development appears to bring Greece closer to the brink of default - and some see that happening in the very near future.
"My guess is there will be a Greek debt default by the end of this fiscal quarter - yeah, that means very soon," said Money Morning Capital Waves Strategist Shah Gilani.
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Don't Look Now but the National Debt Could be $23 Trillion by 2021
There was a lot of back-patting in Washington this week after U.S. President Barack Obama signed a debt-ceiling deal that he and members of Congress claim will reduce the national debt.
But here's the truth: This deal does nothing to reduce America's debt burden. In fact, the $14 trillion we owe now could every easily exceed $23 trillion by 2021.
That's a 62% increase.
It only takes a little bit of number crunching to see what I mean.
The deal brokered by Congress cuts spending by just $917 billion over a 10-year period, with a special congressional committee assigned to find another $1.5 trillion in deficit savings by late November.
Even if you round up, that $2.5 trillion in "savings" over a 10-year period is inconsequential when you consider that President Obama added nearly $4 trillion to the national debt in just a few short years in office.
How can you make any progress on the debt front when you're adding $4 billion in new liabilities every day?
And the story is even worse than that: According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), even the $2.5 trillion the government claims to be saving is quickly vaporized by inflation and lost economic output.
CBO: Contrary to Barack ObamaThe CBO in January estimated that a 0.1% reduction in growth rates would increase the deficit by $310 billion over the next 10 years, while a 1% increase in inflation rate would increase the deficit by $867 billion.
The CBO projects the average growth rate from 2011 to 2016 will be 3.25%, and the non-partisan group has the average rate of inflation pegged at 1.55% over that same period.
However, growth in the first half of 2011was 0.8% and the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) inflation index - the type of inflation the CBO looks at - was 3.5%.
So let's do the math.
If growth and inflation statistics magically revert to CBO expectations - which would be a long shot considering how much they're already off - then the budget deficit over the next 10 years would rise by $928 billion. That alone is more than enough to wipe out the $917 billion of initial savings in the debt-ceiling bill.
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