Let Down by Politics

In reducing the AAA credit rating for the US, Standard & Poor’s offered a forward-looking opinion on the risk of the nation meeting its obligations in full and on time. Rather than shun US treasury notes, investors sold off equities, putting the US stock markets into a nosedive. The reaction reflects deep skepticism, not about the quality of the debt, explains YaleGlobal Editor Nayan Chanda, but rather US political will to cooperate on resolving a long list of economic problems, including ballooning imbalances obvious to all. Europe faces a tougher test, as the wealthiest nations delay formalizing an agreement to pay off debts for spendthrifts Greece and Italy. In his regular column for Businessworld, Chanda questions the commitment of politicians who take off for vacations during anxious times, procrastinating on crucial financial decisions. Such nonchalance has unnerved investors, and the financial markets that ultimately determine interest rates, loan schedules, corporate stock prices – and often political futures – won’t be patient for long. – YaleGlobal

Let Down by Politics

It is not the fundamentals of the US economy, but the lack of faith in politicians that unnerved the market
Nayan Chanda
Monday, August 15, 2011

Something funny happened on the road to the market crash of 8 August. As the markets opened for trading, investors rushed into the burning building that they were supposed to flee. Only three days earlier, credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s had spooked the market by downgrading US debt a notch from its long-held AAA rating. In a normal situation, you would expect punters to flee from the downgraded instruments to ones rated as more secure. Instead, the opposite happened. Investors dumped their equities and rushed into US treasuries in droves — the very instrument whose downgrading had sparked the market rout. As a result, interest rates on Treasuries dropped to their lowest point since January 2009.

In this paradox lies the clue to the current global crisis. It is not so much the fundamentals of the US economy that has unnerved the market, but rather deep scepticism of the politicians in charge. Washington remains the safest port in a storm even though policy gridlock threatens a double-dip recession. The eurozone, the world’s other go-to Eumarket, might have offered an alternative in earlier times. Today, however, the euro’s fundamental weakness and the continent’s political division and fiscal ineptness have made Europe ground zero of the global crisis.

Belated intervention by the European Central Bank (ECB) to shore up Italian and Spanish debt has only underscored the existential crisis of the euro. The piecemeal Band-Aid solutions offered by the European Union (EU) for its debt crisis, which has been building for almost two years, have already exposed the basic flaw of the eurozone arrangement. Namely, poorer members have a credit card with the high borrowing ceiling of richer members.

Now that the results of the borrowing binge are hitting home, leaders fearful of their domestic constituencies are unable to take robust and decisive action. The strongest member, Germany, needs to pump in vast amounts of cash to save Italy and Spain — and eventually the euro — but that might be a political suicide in the run up to elections. The scene is dismal all around, with scandal-tainted politicians lacking the courage and authority to take tough measures to assure the market.

As if the woeful absence of political courage and cohesion was not enough to discourage investors, the EU’s bureaucrats must surely win the gold medal for fecklessness. After congratulating themselves on agreeing to a bailout package for Greece on 21 July, they left the small matter of formalisation until September, presumably when officials would return from the beach. Rising yields of Italian bonds (Italy is the world’s third-largest debtor nation) went unnoticed until panic set in among investors fearing Italy’s inability to service its debts. A sharp letter from European Commission president José Manuel Barroso raising the alarm finally brought officials back from their vacations and the ECB back to the task of salvaging Italian and Spanish bonds. Unsurprisingly, none of this belated action has calmed investors’ nerves.

Across the Atlantic, the US Congress too had taken off for its summer recess after weeks of hand-to-hand combat over the debt ceiling debate. When the S&P downgrade was announced, leaders of both parties interrupted their vacations to go on television to blame each other for this blow to US prestige. Through their petty bickering, these officials fulfilled one of the justifications that S&P had offered for its downgrade.

The agency did not believe that the Republicans — hell-bent on resisting tax increases for the rich — and Democrats, who were determined to protect social benefits and healthcare for the poor and the elderly, are capable of reaching a compromise that would pave the way to trim the large and growing debt. Standard & Poor’s knows that, compared to other developed countries, the US is still on much safer territory. The debt/GDP ratio is projected to reach 85 per cent in a decade, and as the issuer of the reserve currency of choice, it has greater means to avoid a default than any other country.

While the coming pain will be long and acute, the US, with its deep capital markets, entrepreneurial spirit, innovativeness and high productivity, retains the ability to ride out the current crisis. “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing,” Winston Churchill once said, “after they have exhausted all other possibilities!” Unfortunately, the markets do not wait around for the dawn of political reality.


Nayan Chanda is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and editor of YaleGlobal Online.

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