With Christmas shoppers out in force and the stock market surging to a two-year high, talk is spreading that the long-awaited recovery is at hand.
But gleaning the news from Europe and Asia as U.S. cities, states and the federal government sink into debt, it is difficult to believe a worldwide financial crisis that hammers governments, banks and bondholders alike can be long averted. Consider.
Fitch and Moody's have just downgraded the debt of Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Hungary. In Budapest, the politicians talk of default. Spain has been warned its debt and banks could be downgraded.
The European Central Bank is buying up this paper to prevent panic selling by investors. There is talk of forcing bondholders to take a haircut. They would trade their suspect bonds for new euro bonds whose face value would be appreciably less.
In the Latin American debt crisis, the United States bailed out its banks holding the bad paper by giving them U.S.-backed bonds, while forcing them to take a loss on their Latin bonds. Courtesy of Uncle Sam, Latin America walked away from a huge slice of its debt.
The Japanese national debt is slated to pass 200 percent of gross domestic product this year, highest of any major economy on earth. Half of Japan's spending is now financed by bonds. Tax revenues do not even cover 50 percent.
Nor is America out of the woods.
Financial analyst Meredith Whitney told "60 minutes" we can expect 50 to 100 cities and counties to default on their municipal bonds. Though derided as an alarmist, Whitney was among the few who warned that U.S. banks were in treacherous waters before 2008.
If anyone is an alarmist, it is The New York Times. In an editorial the day after Christmas, "The Looming Crisis in the States," the Times writes, "Illinois, California and several other states are at increasing risk of being the first states to default since the 1930s."
California and Illinois are to America what Germany and Spain are to the European Union -- the first and fifth largest states.
Illinois, writes the Times, "is faced with $4 billion in overdue payments." The state "has lacked the money to pay its bills. Some of its employees have been evicted from their offices for nonpayment of rent, social service groups have laid off hundreds of workers while waiting for checks, pharmacies have closed for lack of Medicaid payments." Illinois is also still borrowing to finance half of its budget.
By Sept. 30, the U.S. government will have run three straight deficits of close to 10 percent of GDP. And Barack Obama and the GOP just passed $858 billion in new and extended tax cuts and fresh spending.