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Impeccable timing: Feds tighten purse strings as economy starts to stall

If there is indeed a new "deal" in Washington to raise the federal borrowing limit, avoid national default and seek spending cuts to lower the chronic deficit, then U.S. stock markets should have rejoiced Monday and climbed on such bullish (if belated) signs of apparent fiscal responsibility.

Instead, stock markets fell briskly Monday before closing down slightly. Consider it a reminder that the complex U.S. economy revolves around many suns — not just Washington's dim light.

While all eyes — at least all CNN and Fox TV cameras — seem fixated on D.C.'s political Theater of the Debt, businesses and investors digested a broader buffet of tough economic reports. They ranged from Monday's weak manufacturing output to Friday's news that the U.S. gross domestic product grew at a puny annual rate of less than 1 percent in the first half of 2011.

That's far below what was expected. Such weak GDP growth numbers are not enough to nudge down the nation's 9.2 percent jobless rate.

But they are enough to revive concern of a recession's return.

Talk of a double-dip should raise warning flags in Florida, a battered state already lagging the thin U.S. recovery. Florida's June unemployment rate, the latest available, stalled at 10.6 percent, the same as it was in May and 1.4 percentage points above the national rate.

Home prices statewide and in Tampa Bay have dropped nearly 50 percent from their 2006 highs, vaporizing billions of dollars in home equity that for many Floridians formed the basis of their net worth and retirement savings. Now that cushion is gone just as the federal government decides it's time to tighten its belt.

Don't get me wrong. I'm delighted our politicians are so boldly seeking even a vague compromise to avoid default and trim government expenses to the tune of up to $2.4 trillion in the coming decade.

I'm thrilled, I guess, that the United States for now will retain its AAA credit rating with a handful of elite countries like Germany, Canada, France, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

I'm just not sure that, despite dire warnings, the impact of losing that AAA rating would do much more than bruise the sensitive U.S. ego. One notch down, AA-rated countries include China (which owns so much U.S. debt), Japan, Chile and Spain.

Given our enormous appetite to borrow and lack of discipline to diet, maybe AA's a more realistic place to be, for the moment, even if it's sure to spark a political firestorm. Who wants to be president, much less a leader in Congress, on the day the United States is no longer rated AAA?

Let's just be clear of the consequences of a nation deciding to tighten the purse strings just as the country may be running out of economic gas again, and when vulnerable Florida could be imperiled by a renewed recession.

After adding an increase of 28,000 jobs in May, Florida managed to squeeze out just 4,300 in June. That's not enough to call that a trend yet, but job creation in the state is heading the wrong way just as the feds talk of leaner times.

Near term, squeezing federal spending by cutting hundreds of billions from the defense budget and other programs will inevitably shrink U.S. growth and dampen the creation of new jobs.

The hope, of course, is less government bloat and uncertainty will inspire businesses to confidently expand and hire again. Eventually.

I just wonder if Florida, the land of instant gratification, can wait that long.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Impeccable timing: Feds tighten purse strings as economy starts to stall 08/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 6:37am]
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