Soros says U.S. faces "lasting slowdown"

NEW YORK Mon Apr 6, 2009 6:31pm EDT

1 of 3. George Soros, chairman of the Soros Fund Management and Open Society, speaks during an interview with Reuters in New York April 6, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. economy is in for a "lasting slowdown" and could face a Japanese-style period of relatively low growth with the added problem of high inflation, billionaire investor George Soros said on Monday.

Soros told Reuters Financial Television that rescuing U.S. banks could turn them into "zombies" that suck the lifeblood of the economy, prolonging the economic slowdown.

"I don't expect the U.S. economy to recover in the third or fourth quarter so I think we are in for a pretty lasting slowdown," Soros said, adding that in 2010 there might be "something" in terms of U.S. growth.

Most economists expect the U.S. economy to stop contracting in the third quarter and resume growing in the fourth quarter, according to a latest monthly poll of forecasts by Reuters.

The recovery will look like "an inverted square root sign," Soros said: "You hit bottom and you automatically rebound some, but then you don't come out of it in a V-shape recovery or anything like that. You settle down -- step down."

In the fourth quarter, the U.S. economy contracted at a 6.3 percent annualized rate, and economists think the first quarter's slide will be at least as severe, if not worse.

Healing the banking system, which is "basically insolvent," and housing markets is crucial to recovery, Soros said.

The public-private investment funds -- unveiled by the Treasury last month to get bad debts off bank balance sheets -- are going to work but won't be enough to recapitalize the banks so they are able to or willing to provide credit, he said.

Even a steep yield curve won't generate enough profits to keep the banks out of their vulnerable situation.

"What we have created now is a situation where the banks who will be able to earn their way out of a hole, but by doing that, they are going to weigh on the economy.

"Instead of stimulating the economy, they will draw the lifeblood, so to speak, of profits away from the real economy in order to keep themselves alive."

Soros, whose latest book, "The Crash of 2008 and What it Means," has made prescient calls during the credit crisis.

A year ago, he told Reuters that global losses were likely to top $1 trillion. U.S. and European banks have recorded more than $700 billion in losses and write-downs, as of February 5, 2009, according to Reuters data.

DOLLAR IS VULNERABLE

Soros said the "stress tests" of banks being conducted by Treasury, to determine their financial resilience, could be a precursor to a more successful recapitalization of the banks.

He also said the U.S. dollar is under selling pressure and one day could be replaced as a world reserve currency, possibly by the International Monetary Fund's Special Drawing Rights, a currency basket comprising dollars, euros, yen and sterling.

"I think the dollar is now under question and I think the system will need to be reformed, so that the United States will be subject to the same discipline as is imposed on other countries," said Soros, whose famous bet against the British pound earned his Quantum Fund $1 billion in 1992.

"Being the main issuer of international currency, we have been exempt and we have abused that because we have effectively consumed 6.5 percent more than we have produced. That is now coming to an end."

Soros said there was a risk of a "tipping point" for the dollar which would see it slump, triggering higher interest rates and choking growth.

"This leads you to what used to be stagflation -- stop, go. And I think that is what's probably in store, rather than... hyperinflation."

China recently proposed greater use of SDRs, possibly as an eventual global reserve currency.

"In the long run, having an international accounting unit rather than the dollar may, in fact, be to our advantage so we can't splurge -- you know, it felt very good for 25 years but now we are paying a very heavy price," Soros said.

U.S. consumer spending has to fall to 60 percent of gross domestic product, compared two-thirds now, he continued.

China will emerge first from recession, probably this year, and will lead global growth in 2010, Soros added.

World policymakers are "actually beginning to catch up" with the crisis and efforts to fix structural problems in the financial system, he said referring to last week's meeting of leaders of G20 countries.

Turning to Europe, the euro has been "a tremendous advantage" to countries that use it, adding there's "no question of a weaker country dropping out," Soros said.

More funds for the IMF will help it stabilize struggling Eastern Europe but the Baltic states still face "serious problems" and Ukraine is not far from default, he warned.

Widespread use of credit default swaps has worsened the risks for Europe, he said, though he added that Germany, the euro zone's biggest economy, is becoming more open to offering help. "Germany, which has been the most reserved about being the deep pocket of the rest of Europe, has recognized that it too has a responsibility toward the new member states."

Germany has been one of the most reluctant major economies to meet U.S. calls for more fiscal stimulus spending to boost the global economy and fight the financial crisis.

(Additional reporting by Martin Howell, Jack Reerink, Daniel Bases, William Schomberg and Steven C. Johnson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis; Editing by Diane Craft)

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