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Investors keep faith in U.S. in crisis after crisis

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 6:12 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 11:59 a.m. CDT

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NEW YORK – The U.S. keeps stumbling from one budget crisis to another, but the damage never sticks.

Global investors still see it as the world’s best place to park their money. Even the threat of an unprecedented government default doesn’t seem to have dulled the allure of Teflon America.

The 10-year Treasury note, the bedrock of the government’s debt market, has attracted more money in recent weeks, not less, and the stock market is still close to record highs.

Still, the squabbling in Washington over the debt ceiling, which follows squabbling over automatic spending cuts earlier this year, is severely testing investor patience. Many fear a default would be a tipping point, sending bond and stock prices plunging.

The repeated budgetary brinkmanship is making some question their faith in the U.S.

“The more times you give politicians a chance to completely muck something up, the more chance ... they will do it,” said Gary Jenkins, managing director of Swordfish Research in London. “If this were to become a regular occurrence, then, who knows?”

The U.S. Treasury has warned it will run out of money if Congress does not agree to raise a $16.7 trillion cap on borrowing by Oct. 17 and allow it to issue more debt. That has raised the specter that the U.S. won’t be able to pay interest on its debt. Republicans say they won’t allow more borrowing unless Democrats agree to restructure benefits programs or cut the deficit; the White House has ruled out negotiations tied to the debt cap.

The Treasury says a default on bond payments could freeze global credit, spike borrowing costs and trigger a collapse worse than the Great Recession.

Even with such a dire scenario, investors continue to buy Treasurys. On Wednesday, the yield on the 10-year note, which falls when investors buy, was 2.67 percent, near a two-month low.

U.S. stocks have been drifting lower the past three weeks. Even so, the Standard and Poor’s 500 index is just 4 percent below an all-time high reached Sept. 18.

The debt ceiling fight echoes the Congressional standoff over the same issue in the summer of 2011.

Experts say the U.S. attracts money now for the same reason it did back then: Many other countries are faring worse than the U.S. China, India and Brazil are slowing dramatically. Japan is struggling to shake off a two-decade slump. The 17 countries of the eurozone have just emerged from a recession.

“We’re the best of worst,” says David Sherman, head of Cohanzick Management, a manager of bond funds. He adds that the U.S. tends to “bounce back” from crises.

In the 2011 crisis, for example, U.S. stock prices dropped, but recovered most of their losses by the end of the year.

Many investors think the costs of a default are too high for politicians not to raise the borrowing cap before the deadline. But they’re still worried. Congress hasn’t agreed on a spending bill for the new budget year that began Oct. 1. A lack of funding led to a partial shutdown of the government, which entered its ninth day on Wednesday.

“If we’re having trouble with this government shutdown, and no negotiation, what’s going to happen in two weeks?” asks Talley Leger, a strategist Macro Vision Research, an investment consultancy.

Leger thinks it may take a further drop in stocks, perhaps a big one, to force lawmakers to compromise.

The precedent for this is the 778-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average on Sept. 29, 2008, after Congress rejected a $700 billion bailout bill, known as Troubled Asset Relief Program. The TARP bill was passed within days.

“This whole shutdown could easily drag out to the debt deadline,” says Bill Strazzullo, chief market strategist of Bell Curve Trading.

His thinks the Dow could fall to 14,200 – down 600 points from Wednesday’s close.

The prospects for U.S. bonds are more complicated.

When investors anticipate a crisis, they tend to buy U.S. bonds. Treasurys are one of the mostly widely held assets in the world, so it’s easy to buy and sell them, even when people are panicking.

“People crave Treasurys because it is the most liquid market,” says Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo.

After the rating agency Standard and Poor’s stripped the U.S. of its top credit rating in August 2011, people bought more U.S. debt. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell below 2 percent for the first time in a half century.

“For all its theatrical problems, the U.S. is still a haven,” says Marshall Mays, director of Hong Kong-based Emerging Alpha Advisors. Mays says money should continue to flow to the U.S. from Asia.

There is another reason to buy Treasurys. The worse things get, the less likely it is that the Federal Reserve will slow its economic stimulus. The Fed is buying $85 billion in Treasury and other bonds each month, driving bond prices up and their interest rates down. The goal is to lower rates on consumer loans, which are pegged to Treasurys.

The Fed extended that program last month, partly because it though the economy still needed help. Now, with the shutdown dragging on the economy, the Fed could keep buying bonds, continuing to make them attractive investments.

Randall Warren, chief investment officer of Warren Financial Service in Exton, Penn., says the Washington standoff might not be bad for another reason.

If Americans are made aware of their large debt, he says, they may be more willing to accept an increase in taxes or a cut in spending. “The easier it will be for Congress to dish out the medicine.”

A default on Treasurys would be a step too far, though, says Dariusz Kowalczyk, Hong Kong-based senior Asia economist at Credit Agricole CIB. “People would be just afraid of holding Treasurys and to a smaller degree in holding the dollar.”

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