Where does Uncle Sam come up with huge sums of money during a financial emergency? Like the rest of us, the government taps its reserves and borrows if it needs more.
The federal government has pledged more than $600 billion in the past year to bail out, or help bail out, some of the biggest names in American finance. The latest was American International Group.
Now the credit crisis is starting to tax even the Federal Reserve's deep resources.
On Wednesday, the Fed took the unprecedented step of asking the Treasury Department to sell debt on behalf of the Fed. The first of those auctions raised $40 billion, and two more to raise an additional $60 billion are scheduled for today.
Analysts said these auctions don't mean that the Fed, the bank that backs up the U.S. banking system, is strapped for money. Instead, they said it represented an effort to better manage its own holdings of Treasury securities.
It uses those securities to control interest rates by buying or selling the securities to banks, thus raising and lowering the amount of money banks have to loan out and influencing the price of that money.
While the Fed has access to its fat piggy bank to support its effort to prop up financial companies, the Treasury Department will have to whip out the credit card for the support it is pledging to mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The Treasury Department will have to borrow the money because it doesn't have the deep reserves that the Fed does. The country is running a huge budget deficit this year and is projected to run an even bigger one next year.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues met Tuesday and voted to hold the target for the federal funds rate, the interest that it influences through its buying and selling of Treasury securities, at 2 percent.
Analysts said if the Fed had not gotten help from the Treasury to auction off more debt that it could use, it ran the risk of pushing the funds rate lower than it wants it to go and thus increasing the threat of inflation down the road.
For the Treasury's $200 billion pledge for Fannie and Freddie plus its support for FHA-backed mortgage loans, the borrowing needed will send the deficit even higher.
Stimulus checks totaling $168 billion, sent to Americans earlier this year to bolster the economy, will have an impact on the budget deficit. For the budget year ending Sept. 30, it's expected to hit $400 billion, the second highest on record and more than double last year's deficit of $161.5 billion.
The Bush administration is projecting that the deficit for the new budget year, which begins Oct. 1, will surge to an all-time high of $482 billion. And that estimate doesn't include any costs for bailing out Fannie and Freddie.