U.S. Budget Discord Seen as Top Threat to Global Economy

European debt crisis ranks as second biggest worry for investors, poll shows.

Global investors say the state of the U.S. government’s finances is the greatest risk to the world economy and almost half are curbing their investments in response to continuing budget battles, a Bloomberg poll shows.

With the government within weeks of reaching its borrowing limit, 36 percent of respondents cite the nation’s fiscal woes as the biggest threat compared with 29 percent who choose Europe’s sovereign debt crisis and 15 percent who name a slowing Chinese economy, according to the quarterly poll on Jan. 17 of investors, analysts and traders who subscribe to Bloomberg.

“Without a so-called ‘grand bargain’ between Democrats and Republicans, the U.S. fiscal situation sets up a series of potential crises,” says Howard Wang, a portfolio manager at JF Asset Management Ltd. in Hong Kong. “Bad politics could offset a good economy.”

The International Monetary Fund in October cut its forecast for global economic growth this year to 3.6 percent, 0.3 percentage point lower than its July 2012 estimate.

Investors may get a temporary respite today with U.S. House Republicans scheduled to vote to suspend the nation’s borrowing limit until May 19. The Republican proposal is intended to prompt the Democratic-controlled Senate to approve an annual budget, something it hasn’t done in four years, by withholding lawmakers’ pay if a budget isn’t passed by April 15. The Obama administration yesterday welcomed the House’s move.

Along with the looming debt ceiling, Congress confronts March deadlines on a measure to fund the government and $1.2 trillion in scheduled automatic spending cuts.

Almost half of investors -- 47 percent -- say Washington’s recurring fiscal showdowns are discouraging them from investing in U.S. financial markets, according to the Bloomberg Global Poll conducted by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, Iowa. Included in that amount are 39 percent who say they would normally be investing more; 8 percent say they are actively selling.

Josh Denney, a research analyst with SGL Investment Advisors Inc. in Missoula, Montana, says his firm is in “sort of a perpetual ‘wait and see’ approach, thanks to Washington.”

Forty-five percent of respondents say the political confrontation isn’t affecting their investment decisions, while 3 percent are increasing their U.S. holdings.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner says the government could hit its $16.4 trillion debt ceiling as soon as mid- February. By a margin of 56 percent to 40 percent, investors embrace House Republicans’ view that any increase in the limit should be matched by equal reductions in future spending.

 

Biggest Problem

“Spending, our biggest problem, is not being addressed,” says Ted Madaj, portfolio manager at American Agricultural Insurance Co. in Schaumburg, Illinois, who says he’s trimming his holdings of U.S. stocks.

While investors in the poll are voicing concern about the future, the markets so far are showing little apprehension. The 10-year Treasury yield was at 1.84 percent yesterday in New York. That’s up from 1.7 percent on Dec. 28, yet well below the 5.4 percent average over the past 25 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock Index has risen more than 13 percent over the past year. It closed yesterday at 1,492.56, its highest level in more than five years.

Some investors say they’re worried about an eventual end to the Federal Reserve’s purchases of Treasury securities. Those measures, aimed at spurring economic growth, have lowered the 10-year yield by 80 to 120 basis points, according to Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. Once the central bank halts its market interventions, yields could climb if deficits remain large.

“What happens if economic growth suddenly picks up?” asks Paul Hickey, co-founder of Bespoke Investment Group in Harrison, New York. “If the Fed turns off the vacuum, the fixed-income market could get messy.”

Though Republicans are winning investor support for their calls for spending cuts, it comes at a cost. House Speaker John Boehner is viewed unfavorably by 46 percent of those surveyed, up from 38 percent in November. Thirty-one percent say they see the Republican leader favorably.

President Barack Obama is viewed favorably by 55 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 41 percent, about the same as in the last poll, in November.

Investors have little faith that Obama and congressional Republicans will agree this year on sweeping changes to U.S. entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and to government tax policies.

 

Tax Rewrite

On potential legislation that would simplify the 4 million word tax code, 58 percent say only “modest changes” will result this year, with 7 percent expecting a comprehensive rewrite and 29 percent anticipating no meaningful changes.

Republicans say government budget deficits should be reduced by trimming spending on Medicare and Social Security. Without cuts, the two programs will help drive debt held by the public to 103 percent of U.S. gross domestic product by 2040, according to the White House.

Fifty-two percent of investors predict modest changes in spending plans, while 4 percent anticipate a “comprehensive package” and 37 percent say the status quo will remain.

The budget debate will take place as Obama retools his economic team. Geithner, who is scheduled to leave his Treasury post on Jan. 25, is viewed favorably by 51 percent of those surveyed compared with 38 percent who regard him unfavorably.

Jack Lew, nominated by Obama to replace him as Treasury secretary, is a blank slate for investors; 54 percent say they have no opinion about the current White House chief of staff.

Ninety-two percent of investors, traders and analysts surveyed say it’s unlikely the U.S. will default on its debt. The wrangling over the U.S. fiscal position has taken a toll on the credit-rating companies’ reputations.

Since Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. debt in August 2011, the 10-year yield has fallen from 2.56 percent. In the Bloomberg poll, 26 percent of investors say they don’t value the rating companies’ opinions as much as they once did, while 9 percent say they no longer put any stock in their views. Thirty-one percent say the companies were “never useful,” and 32 percent see the opinions as one among many useful tools.

Still, the recurring political battles over the nation’s finances may be unsettling consumers. After reaching an eight- month high on Dec. 30, the weekly Bloomberg consumer comfort index has declined for two consecutive weeks.

The Jan. 1 end of the temporary payroll tax cut will dent take-home pay and thus consumption, economists say. The economy is expected to grow in the first quarter at an annual rate of 1.5 percent, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

Unless the automatic spending cuts are postponed, “we’ll be doubling down on austerity at a time when the economy is already weak,” says Scott Anderson, chief economist of Bank of the West in San Francisco.

The poll of 921 Bloomberg customers has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

 

Bloomberg News

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