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Originally published Tuesday, October 15, 2013 at 8:31 PM

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Prospect of U.S. default keeps world on edge

China has become shrill in its criticism of the possible fiscal train wreck in the United States, and other nations have reacted with disbelief, worry and frustration that U.S. lawmakers could let the problem reach this point.


The New York Times

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Faced with the march toward a default in Washington, D.C., the world has reacted mostly with disbelief that the reigning superpower could fall into such dysfunction, worry over global suffering to come and frustration that U.S. lawmakers could let the problem reach this point.

A common question crossing continents remains quite simple: The Americans aren’t really that unreasonable and self-destructive, are they?

“It just goes to show that it’s not only Greece that has irresponsible and shortsighted politicians,” said Ioanna Kalavryti, 34, a teacher in Athens. “We’ve been held hostage by our reckless politicians, and the interests they serve, for more than three years now. I guess our American friends are getting a taste of the same medicine.”

China has become shrill in its criticism of the possible fiscal train wreck in the United States, arguing that the answer to a potential government default is to begin creating a “de-Americanized world.” Beijing’s alarm is understandable, given that it is the world’s largest investor in U.S. public debt, with at least $1.3 trillion in holdings.

But China does not have many options beyond wringing its hands. Despite its efforts to steer its economy away from exports and toward domestic demand, China generates billions of dollars of excess cash that it needs to park somewhere. And for all the chaos in D.C., Treasury bonds remain a safer investment than most of the alternatives.

That dependence may help explain the stridency of a recent commentary published by the official Xinhua news agency, which said, “it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.”

For countries that have had their own experiences with financial crises — often followed by U.S. dictates about the need to be more responsible — the brinkmanship in the United States has produced an especially caustic mix of bewilderment, offense and more than a little eagerness to scold.

Many people in countries like Greece, Argentina, Mexico and Russia have searing memories of defaults and their lasting effects, including lost power. Especially galling for those who endured crises of their own is the fact that the United States remains sheltered: A default could well hurt weaker countries more than the United States, which has the advantage of the dollar’s use as a global currency.

Indeed, the unequal distribution of power and wealth — part of the exceptionalism that U.S. politicians loudly defend — has become a focal point for many foreign economists and officials. If any other nation had gotten this close to failing to pay its debts, they say, its economy would have already collapsed as investors fled, creating the need for a bailout not unlike what occurred in Mexico in 1994.

“The U.S.’ exorbitant privilege” — of issuing the world’s most widely accepted currency — “allows it not to have a budget, to bump against debt limit with scant market reaction,” said Luis de la Calle, a Mexican economist.

If Mexico and many other countries shut down their governments, stopped paying salaries and threatened to default, he added, the titans of global finance, as they have in the past, would make sure the consequences were swift and severe.

Finger-wagging has been easy to find. In Egypt, where the military-backed government has been criticized by the Obama administration for its heavy-handed crackdown on opponents, the American woes were splashed across the front page of the flagship state newspaper this week with alarm and a hint of satisfaction.

In Argentina, which defaulted on around $100 billion in debt in 2001, then the biggest default in history, the newspaper La Nación pointed out in an article how the United States “is supposedly an international leader and one that speaks every day of setting an example.”

But in many countries, a wide range of people, from executives to shoe shiners, simply seemed surprised and annoyed, with some saying they hoped that D.C.’s dangerous game of chicken would draw to an end without global repercussions.

“They’re putting at risk thousands of jobs here in Mexico,” said Ahmad Fayad, 31, an administrative assistant leaving a bank in Mexico City. “Many companies here depend on the American economy’s health. And if everything continues to be so uncertain, they’ll start laying people off.”

Economists who follow China’s monetary policy say that while China has somewhat diversified its foreign-exchange reserves, it continues to rely heavily on Treasury bills and other U.S. government-backed debt. Part of the problem is the lack of easy alternatives: Euro-denominated debt has been hurt by the European Union’s crisis, except in Germany. Analysts estimate that 60 percent of China’s $3.66 trillion in reserves are in dollar-denominated debt, although the precise numbers are a secret.

Europe’s own fragile recovery rests on demand for its exports, especially from the United States, the largest customer for German products outside the European Union. The United States is also by far the largest export market for the EU as a whole, buying goods worth $193 billion in the first six months of 2013. That was double the value of European exports to China.

It would not take much of a stutter in U.S. growth to undermine the eurozone economy, which is still burdened by weak banks and 12 percent unemployment. In fact, exports to the United States were down 2 percent through June compared with the period a year earlier.

On Tuesday, the dollar rose sharply against the euro, evidently on optimism about Senate developments. But some analysts expressed concern that a deal, even if it came before the Thursday deadline for a nominal default on U.S. Treasury debt, would be too late to prevent the Treasury from missing payments on government bonds coming due.

U.S. Treasury bonds are the most widely held securities in the world and are used as collateral in countless financial transactions. China and Japan are the two biggest holders of U.S. government bonds by far, with about $1.3 trillion and $1.1 trillion.

But many other countries are also heavily exposed to U.S. bonds, including Brazil, Taiwan, Belgium and Switzerland.

Any default would probably be temporary, Rob Carnell, chief international economist at ING Bank, said in a note to clients Tuesday. But, he added, “a prolonged default really would start to damage faith in the U.S. Treasury markets.”

Investors would shift their money to other assets considered low risk, Carnell said, such as gold or currencies like the Swiss franc.

Interest rates in some of the more debt-stressed European countries like Italy would probably also rise, making it even harder for companies and individuals to get loans and prolonging the economic downturn there. Italian and Spanish bond yields both rose slightly Tuesday, although they remained below levels considered dangerous to government fiscal health.

For people outside the United States, though, the biggest damage from the political impasse in D.C. may be to their morale. If the government of the world’s most powerful nation cannot keep operating, what can you believe in anymore?

Carl Weinberg, chief economist of High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., noted that the United States had suffered other blows to its prestige recently, including revelations of Internet spying by the National Security Agency and indecisiveness in dealing with chemical weapons in Syria.

China has stepped into the vacuum, taking advantage of President Obama’s absence from world affairs to forge new trade deals in Asia, Weinberg wrote in a note to clients Tuesday.

“And now we have this debt-limit stupidity,” he said.



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