Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Stimulus ain't free nor funny

It’s a busy season for stimulus packages that run into billions of dollars and sometimes even a trillion or two. (Suddenly `a million' sounds like small change!) For the announcers perhaps it gives them a few fleeting moments at the grandstand, but the global economies and its constituents including the stock markets are hardly pleased. The doubts don’t just linger around the quantum and quality of diligence behind these initiatives, it harp more on its viability – because they know their governments just don’t have so much money.

We thought Tim Geithner will be an improvement over Hank Paulson, at least in terms of practicality as he began by distancing himself from the `tentative steps’ of his predecessor even though he had been consulted upon. Anyway, the first vibes fail to soothe. For all the tough talk, however, the new plan, which will deploy the second half of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP), was frustratingly light on detail.

Cut to home. Yesterday, the Government of India announced fresh borrowing program. As against Rs.2,22,154 crore raised in the ten months to January 2009, it intends to raise further Rs 46,000 crore (almost 21% of debt to date) between February 20 and March 20. Predictably, bond market reacted, sending yields higher (the additional supply will depress prices and push up yields). Though the RBI, the government’s debt manager, made haste to say the additional borrowing would be conducted in a non-disruptive manner, markets are not convinced.

So why do I say it’s not boding well for the economy? Government borrowing being seen as risk free, the rate at which it borrows gets set as the floor rate for all commercial lending. As such, borrowings by all other entities are seen as risky and so the mark up on interest rates go up. That drives the cost of funds up and hence the government cannot push banks to keep lending rates low to stimulate the economy.

Yet they call it stimuls. Now, isn’t that funny?

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