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China Shuns Treasuries

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Domestic borrowing costs could rise.

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China, now the biggest holder of US government debt, is going on a buyer's strike.

As a flight from risky financial assets pushed Treasury yields close to nil -- and as the once-red-hot Chinese economy dried up -- China's appetite for Treasuries has waned. If the trend persists, it could lead to higher borrowing costs at a time American consumers can barely afford the mountanous debt they already have.

The New York Times reports China's government is keeping more of it's vast cash reserves at home, choosing to invest in its own infrastructure rather than plow money into an investment earning them virtually nothing. Chinese banks, once encouraged to invest money abroad and actively lend to foreign borrowers, are now being urged to keep that money within their own borders.

Lower demand for US debt would lead to lower bond prices, pushing up yields. And since the Treasury market typically sets the benchmark for private borrowing, this would translate into higher rates for mortgages, credit cards and other types of consumer debt.

It's no coincidence that as Chinese appetite for American debt dried up last year, the Federal Reserve began to aggressively buy the assets China no longer wanted. Heavily invested in Treasuries, along with mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE), China's voracious appetite for US debt is being supplanted by that of our own government.

Few experts however, expect China to abandon Treasuries altogether. Such a drastic move would effectively destroy the US economy, which would in turn be disastrous for China, not to mention the rest of the world. Still, each time the government bails out a company like General Motors (GM), Citigroup (C) or AIG (AIG) its standing with debt holders slips.

The timing couldn't be worse for the incoming administration. Promising to keep the deficit upwards of a trillion dollars for the foreseeable future, President-Elect Obama is counting on new debt issuances to finance his aggressive stimulus plan.

Without Chinese demand, Obama will be forced to rely on the Federal Reserve to be the buyer of last resort. As the Fed prints money to buy our own debt, however, each of the precious dollars Obama is pumping into the economy is worth less and less.

If this all sounds eerily familiar, it should.

A certain financial deviant, now a household name, ran a massive Ponzi scheme by repaying early investors with the money of the most recent suckers. His actual holdings were worthless - much like debt issued by a country teetering under the weight of its own massive, bloated balance sheet.

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