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Investors Keep Faith in U.S. in Crisis after Crisis
By Bernard Condon, AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) -- Global investors have stayed remarkably confident in the U.S. despite one budget crisis after another. But they're starting to wonder if the latest political impasse will tarnish America's Teflon image.
So far, the nation's reputation as the world's best place to invest remains unshaken. 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," says 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 Tuesday, the yield on the 10-year note, which falls when investors buy, was 2.63 percent, near a two-month low.
U.S. stocks fell again on Tuesday, the 11th drop in the last 14 trading days. Still, the Standard and Poor's 500 index reached an all-time high just three weeks ago and is only 4 percent below that peak.
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 guess is that the Dow falls to 14,200 - down 576 points from Tuesday'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."
AP Business Writers Steve Rothwell in New York, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris contributed to this report.
More Business News
Last Update on November 26, 2014 19:13 GMT
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits jumped last week, pushing total applications above 300,000 for the first time in nearly three months.
The Labor Department says weekly applications rose 21,000 to a seasonally adjusted 313,000, the highest level since the first week of September. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 6,250 to 294,000.
The increase is unlikely to raise concerns about the broader health of the job market. At least some of the rise occurred because of seasonal layoffs in businesses affected by the cold weather, such as construction. The department seeks to control for such seasonal factors but doesn't always do so perfectly.
Applications had been under 300,000 for 10 straight weeks, an unusually low level that indicates companies are laying off few workers.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. consumers picked up spending by a modest amount in October, a slight improvement after no gain at all in the previous month.
The Commerce Department says consumer spending rose 0.2 percent last month, while September was revised from a decline to a flat reading. Income grew 0.2 percent in October, matching the modest September gain.
Spending is closely watched because it accounts for 70 percent of economic activity. Solid job gains this year are helping to lift spending, which is giving a bolstering the overall economy.
Economic growth came in at a solid 3.9 percent in the July-September quarter. Economists are looking for growth of around 2.5 percent in the current quarter, and they believe 2015 will see further spending gains and growth of around 3 percent.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Orders to U.S. factories for long-lasting manufactured goods rose in October, but a key category that tracks business investment plans declined sharply for a second straight month.
The Commerce Department says orders for durable goods increased 0.4 percent last month following a 0.9 percent drop in September and an even bigger 18.3 percent plunge in August. The two months of declines reflected big swings in the volatile category of commercial aircraft.
The small October gain was unimpressive, with declines in a number of categories including machinery, computers and primary metals such as steel.
A key category viewed as a proxy for business investment spending fell 1.3 percent in October after a similar 1.3 percent September drop. It was the biggest setback since a 1.4 percent May decline.
NEW HOME SALES
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sales of new U.S. homes edged up modestly in October, led by a big jump in activity in the Midwest.
The Commerce Department says new home sales advanced 0.7 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 458,000. That followed a smaller 0.4 percent gain in September and put sales at the highest point since May.
The strength last month came from a big 15.8 percent increase in sales in the Midwest and a smaller 7.1 percent rise in the Northeast. Those increases offset a 1.9 percent fall in sales in the South, which accounts for half of the new-home market, and a 2.7 percent drop in the West.
Housing has struggled to recover since the recession ended in June 2009.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of Americans signing contracts to buy homes fell slightly in October as tight credit and lagging wages remained financial hurdles for would-be homebuyers.
The National Association of Realtors says its seasonally adjusted pending home sales index fell 1.1 percent the past month to 104.1. The index remains below its 2013 average but is 2.2 percent higher than last October.
Pending sales are a barometer of future purchases. A one- to two-month lag usually exists between a contract and a completed sale.
Housing has struggled to fully rebound since the recession ended more than five years ago. Many potential buyers lack the savings and strong credit history needed to afford a home, causing them to rent or remain in their existing houses instead of upgrading.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Average U.S. long-term mortgage rates ticked down for the third straight week, a positive trend for potential homebuyers.
Mortgage company Freddie Mac says the nationwide average for a 30-year mortgage declined to 3.97 percent this week from 3.99 percent last week. Rates are now about a half-point lower than at the beginning of the year.
Long-term mortgage rates fell as low as 3.31 percent toward the end of 2012, partly because of the Federal Reserve's bond-purchase program, which was intended to keep rates low. That program has since ended.
Rates have fallen in recent weeks amid economic slowdowns in Europe and China and the start of a recession in Japan.
The average for a 15-year mortgage, a popular choice for people who are refinancing, was unchanged at 3.17 percent.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Greater optimism about income growth and future spending pushed U.S. consumer sentiment to a fresh 7-year high in November.
The University of Michigan says its index of consumer sentiment rose to 88.8 in November from 86.9 in October. That's the highest since July 2007, five months before the Great Recession began.
The report adds to a mixed picture of U.S. consumers heading into the holiday shopping season. A separate measure of consumer confidence, released Tuesday, fell sharply after reaching its own 7-year high last month. And Americans are spending at a sluggish pace despite a pickup in job creation this year.
Still, the Michigan survey found consumers said they were more likely to spend on big-ticket items such as appliances and autos than at any time since the recession began.
AIR BAG RECALL DEMAND
DETROIT (AP) -- U.S. safety regulators are threatening fines and legal action against Takata Corp. for failing to admit that its driver's-side air bag inflators are defective and should be recalled nationwide.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent a letter to the company Wednesday detailing the threats, which include a public hearing and possible court action.
Takata of Japan has refused demands for the national recall, saying that a recall limited to high-humidity states is sufficient. But the agency says two inflators have ruptured in cars outside the high-humidity zone, injuring drivers by spewing metal fragments.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says Takata must act quickly or the agency will use all of its authority and resources to get the national recall done.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration is announcing steps to cut levels of smog-forming pollution linked to asthma, lung damage and other health problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency is calling for a new, lower threshold for ozone pollution of 65 to 70 parts per billion. That's down from the current standard of 75 parts per billion, put in place by President George W. Bush in 2008.
But the EPA is leaving open the possibility it could enact an even lower standard of 60 parts per billion sought by environmental groups.
The EPA estimates that meeting the stricter rules will cost industry about $3.9 billion in 2025 if the government goes with a standard of 70 parts per billion. At a level of 65 parts per billion, the EPA said, the cost grows to $15 billion.
Industry groups say the cost would actually be far higher and that it would be nearly impossible for refineries and other businesses to comply. But EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says lower ozone standards would actually spur more businesses, investment and jobs by making communities healthier.
The EPA was under a court-ordered Dec. 1 deadline to issue a new smog standard.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A White House veto threat appears to have put on ice a congressional effort to permanently renew a handful of generous tax breaks for businesses and individuals. Officials say that the plan, brewing behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, favored corporations over the working class.
The unusual veto threat came before the parameters of a potential agreement were even revealed.
Speculation on Capitol Hill on Tuesday focused on a potential agreement to permanently enact tax breaks on business investments in new equipment and research and development, part of a plan that would renew dozens of expired tax breaks for businesses and individuals.
The White House immediately threatened a veto, saying Congress should also make permanent more generous tax credits for the working poor and people with children.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Many immigrants in the United States illegally who apply for work permits under President Barack Obama's new executive actions would be eligible for Social Security and Medicare benefits upon reaching retirement age, according to the White House.
Under Obama's actions, immigrants who are spared deportation would be eligible to obtain work permits and a Social Security number. As a result, they would pay into the Social Security system through payroll taxes.
Not all such immigrants would be entitled to the benefits, however, because like all Social Security and Medicare recipients they would have to work 10 years to become eligible for retirement payments and health care.
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