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Municipal Debt Threatens US Economy

The full version of our analysis (with comments particularly valuable for Precious Metals Traders) is available to our Subscribers.


The debt crisis that has taken down banks and even countries threatens more than 100 American municipalities this year. According to Meredith Whitney who works as a US research analyst, local and state debts are the biggest concerns to the US economy today. It is large enough to derail economic recovery. She said that, "There's not a doubt on my mind that you will see a spate of municipal bond defaults. You can see fifty to a hundred sizable defaults - more. This will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of defaults".

American states and cities have a total debt load of around $2 trillion. New Jersey government Chris Christie summarized it clearly, "We spent too much on everything. We spent money we didn't have. We borrowed money just crazily. The credit card's maxed out, and it's over. We now have to get to the business of climbing out of the hole. We've been digging it for a decade or more. We've got to climb now, and a climb is harder." Cities from Madrid to Detroit are struggling to pay off even just basic services such as street cleaning.

Ms. Whitney's comments are likely to put focus on municipal bonds. She is ranked as one of the most influential women in American business. While working for Oppenheimer, a New York investment bank, she predicted that Citibank will cut its dividends. Although she suffered from a lot of criticisms then, her analysis proved to be correct as the bank was forced to seek government bail-out. Ms. Whitney has since started her own consulting firm.

Deficit Already Affecting Public Spending

American states have spent almost $500 billion more than tax revenues. In addition, they face another $1 trillion hole in pension funds. Already, Detroit is cutting road repairs, cleaning services, police, and lighting expenditures which affects 20% of the population. The city has suffered from nearly two decades of decline due to US auto outsourcing. It no longer generates enough wealth to provide services to its 900,000 inhabitants.

Meanwhile, Illinois is suffering from similar ills after spending twice as much as it generated in tax. It is already six months behind on creditor payments. It owes $400 million to the University of Illinois alone and has 21% chances of defaulting on its debts. According to CMA Datavision which is a derivatives information company, this percentage is more than any other state.

Other states such as California and Arizona are also taking steps to solve their debt problems. California has raised university tuition fees by 32% while Arizona sold its Supreme Court and state capitol buildings before leasing them back. Florida is another state that may be hit by a default; this state is the center of a real estate boom that went best recently.

Philip Brown, the managing director of Citigroup in London said that, "It's all part of the same parcel: public sector indebtedness needs to be cut, it needs a lot of austerity and it hit the central government first, and now is hitting local bodies." Unlike banks and other financial institutions "cities are their own". According to Andres Rodriguez-Pose, a professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics, "cities will have to pay for their debts, and in some cases they will have to carry out dramatic cuts, such as Detroit's."

If there is a city that best symbolizes distressed local finances, it is Vallejo in California. Vallejo is a former US navy town located near San Francisco. It has entered into Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection in 2008 and the effects are still resonating up to this day. The city is trying to negotiate with the unions, which has refused to accept a plan to cut salary two years ago.

Vallejo has a population of around 120,000 but it carries $195 million in unfunded pension obligations. The town does not have enough local industry to sustain its finances; property tax collection dropped dramatically upon the collapse of the real estate market. Vallejo is given a C rating by Standard & Poor, the lowest level. US cities are more susceptible to defaults than their European counterparts because it relies mainly on municipal bonds while European towns depend on government bailouts and bank loans.

Gold Expectations for 2011

Now, let's take a look at long-term gold chart (courtesy of http://stockcharts.com) to see how bullion fared this week:

For some time, gold has tried to break the upper border of the rising trend channel. Gold prices have been wavering from $1,340 to $1,423 since October 5 with a general upward slope. It has often just fallen by a fraction below the rising trend line. There are signs that a break-out could be seen soon. We take into account that gold is quite bullish at the onset of a new year. The $1,600 target still seems realistic for the early part of 2011.

2010 ended on a high note for precious metals. Gold ended the year at $1,421 an ounce while silver is at $30.91 an ounce. Overall, gold prices rose by 30% in 2010 while silver leaped 80%. Prognostications abound in 2011. These forecasts consider the outlook for currencies, inflation, and interest rates in the world's largest economies. We'll examine some of the trends that may influence gold prices:

Gold prices tend to rise in times of projected or actual inflation due to the bullion's status as a "safe haven" asset. Investors who are seeking an asset that reacts favorably to currency devaluation and inflation typically move some of their wealth into gold.

Right now, the Fed is more concerned about deflation rather than inflation. As such, they show little reluctance to flood the US economy with dollars. Meanwhile, countries such as India and China want stronger economic growth. The result of this is higher inflation. China's prices are now 5.1% higher compared to a year ago while India projects an inflation of 5.5% by March 2011.

But the correlation between high inflation and high gold prices isn't set in stone. Although more inflation will initially favor high gold prices, the countervailing policy of keeping interest rates to control inflation sometimes makes interest-bearing instruments more attractive. As of now, however, rates are not high enough to have an impact on gold prices.

Historically, the first two months of the year are good for gold. Buyers seek back the gold positions they shed going into the New Year. The continuing inflationary concerns can further support prices in 2011. The Reserve Bank of India said that inflation is not slowing down as quickly as desired. In the US, there are reports that companies are experiencing higher costs for staffing and/or materials, but these costs are not yet being felt by the customers.

According to Frank Holmes, the CEO of US Global Investors, "The two pillars of gold are, in any country's currency, are negative real interest rate and deficit spending." Mr. Holmes believes that low interest rates won't go away anytime soon as this would be "catastrophic" to the financial system.

Thank you for reading.


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Rosanne Lim
Sunshine Profits Contributing Author


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