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America: Home of the (Debt) Free

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US consumers shun new borrowing.

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Freedom is back in vogue: Americans are finally growing tired of living in the shackles of debt.

According to the Wall Street Journal, government-led efforts to jumpstart lending are being derailed by weak demand for new loans. As the recession rolls on, an increasing percentage of consumers are opting to pay with cash or (gasp) save their hard-earned money.

Initiatives like the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) aim to free up consumer credit by supporting the market for asset-backed securities. The Federal Reserve and Treasury Department hope their efforts will enable American consumers to start spending again.

During the boom, fixed-income investors snatched up bonds backed by all types of debt - credit cards, auto loans, and, of course, mortgages. High demand for these seemingly safe investments pushed down interest rates, which stretched consumers' budgets to the brink - and beyond.

But now that investors have been badly burned by such investments, they're shying away from the market almost entirely. Without Wall Street's securitization machine, there's simply nowhere to put new consumer loans.

After years of gorging on cheap credit, Americans are reverting to more responsible fiscal lifestyles. Savings are up, spending is down - which is as it should be. This is reducing the urge to borrow and thwarting Washington's plans to pass the bailout buck down to taxpayers.

Every dollar we don't spend or don't borrow is another that could potentially be handed over to effectively insolvent financial firms like Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC) and American International Group (AIG), or failed automakers like General Motors (GM) and Chrysler.

That task is growing increasingly dicey, as it becomes clear that using debt to fix a system already crippled by debt is patently absurd. And even as the US government loads up on borrowing, consumers are doing the right thing: getting out of hock.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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