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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 March 10, 2014 07:32 GMT
UNDATED (AP) -- Stocks across Asia slumped today as lower-than-expected trade data from China over the weekend fueled worries on the outlook of the world's second largest economy. Weak economic data from Japan today did not help.
China's exports plunged by an unexpectedly large 18 percent in February, possibly denting hopes trade will help drive the slowing economy while communist leaders push ambitious promised reforms.
Weakness in key European and U.S. export markets could raise the risk of politically dangerous job losses in trade-reliant industries that employ millions of workers at a time when communist leaders want to focus on restructuring China's economy.
Benchmark crude oil fell below $102.50 per barrel.
The dollar fell against the euro and the yen.
ECONOMY-THE DAY AHEAD
Major economic reports this week
WASHINGTON -- There are no government reports scheduled for release today.
Tomorrow, the Commerce Department will report on January's wholesale trade inventories.
Also, the Labor Department will release its job openings and labor turnover survey for January.
TOKYO (AP) -- Japan has racked up a record current account deficit in January, and is lowering its economic growth estimate for the October-December quarter.
The government said Monday the world's third-largest economy grew at an annual pace of 0.7 percent, lower than its initial real gross domestic product estimate of 1.0 percent.
Japan's current account deficit totaled 1.589 trillion yen ($15 billion), the biggest for January since comparable records began in 1985, according to the Finance Ministry.
The government has encouraged a weak yen to help exports. That makes imports more expensive. Dependence on imported oil and natural gas has risen since the March 2011 nuclear disaster.
Reactors have been shut down for safety fears. Before the disaster, nuclear energy provided 30 percent of Japan's energy needs.
BEIJING (AP) -- China's February exports fell 18.1 percent in a sign of weak global demand, while imports rose 10.1 percent.
Export data Saturday was much weaker than the single-digit decline expected by private sector analysts while imports were in line with forecasts.
The figures might add to concern China cannot rely on trade to help drive its slowing economy while communist leaders launch sweeping promised reforms.
China's trade data often are distorted by the Lunar New Year holiday, when companies shut down for two weeks or more. The holiday falls at different times each year in January or February.
Grouping together the two months, as analysts often do, still showed weak demand. Exports fell 1.6 percent in the two-month period, compared with a year earlier.
BEIJING (AP) -- China's inflation rate eased in February to 2 percent year-on-year amid signs the world's second-largest economy might be cooling.
The consumer price rise reported Sunday by the National Bureau of Statistics was down from January's 2.5 percent.
Lower inflation could ease pressure on Chinese leaders as they try to focus on promised reforms aimed at making the economy more productive and keeping growth strong.
CAMARILLO, Calif. (AP) -- The average U.S. price of a gallon of gasoline has jumped 10 cents over the past two weeks.
The Lundberg Survey of fuel prices released Sunday says the price of a gallon of regular is $3.51. Midgrade costs an average of $3.69 a gallon, and premium is $3.84.
Diesel was up three cents over the past two weeks at $4.03.
Of the cities surveyed in the Lower 48 states, Los Angeles has the nation's highest average price for gas at $3.94. Jackson, Miss., has the lowest at $3.18.
PUBLIC TRANSIT TRIPS
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Americans are boarding public buses, trains and subways in greater numbers than any time since the suburbs began booming.
Nearly 10.7 billion trips in 2013, to be precise -- the highest total since 1956.
The new numbers come from the American Public Transportation Association.
Transit ridership has now fully recovered from a dip caused by the Great Recession. With services restored following economy-driven cutbacks, the numbers appear set to continue what had been a steady increase.
Expanding bus and train networks help spur the growth, as does the nation's urban shift.
The sprawling city of Houston had a large ridership gain. So did Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, Denver and San Diego.
The New York area's behemoth transit network saw the greatest gain, accounting for one in three trips nationally.
STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) -- United Rentals says it's buying National Pump, the second-largest pump rental company in North America, for $780 million.
The deal will cost the Stamford, Conn.-based United Rentals $765 million in cash and $15 million in stock, plus up to $125 million more if certain financial targets are met. United Rentals will fund the deal with existing cash and an unspecified amount of new debt.
The purchase of the Beaumont, Texas, company is expected to close early next quarter.
National Pump rents equipment mainly to the oil, gas and petrochemical industries. It was founded in 2007.
United Rentals says it's the largest equipment rental company in the world. The company says the purchase is part of its strategy to expand specialty businesses.
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Comcast Corp. is stepping outside its core business of telecommunications and investing hundreds of millions of dollars in California and Florida theme parks in an effort to boost revenue and profits.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports (http://bit.ly/1kFO02N ) that recent moves by the Philadelphia-based, cable-TV company represent a challenge to the Walt Disney Co.'s tourism business in Orlando.
Comcast took over Universal Orlando Resorts as part of its NBCUniversal acquisition in 2011. It plans a new Harry Potter ride this summer at a second theme park and is financing construction of a 1,800-room hotel so guests can eat, sleep and swim on the same 750-acre Universal complex.
CEO Brian Roberts says Comcast is "doubling down on theme parks" because they have potential for many years to come.
NEW YORK (AP) -- The stylish combat film "300: Rise of an Empire" topped the box office with a strong debut of $45.1 million seven years after the original "300" became an unlikely sensation.
According to studio estimates Sunday, the "300" sequel opened well below the $70.9 debut of Zac Snyder's 2007 original. But the 3-D "Rise of an Empire" beat estimates and easily edged out the weekend's other new wide release, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman."
The movie adaptation of the `60s cartoon opened in second place with $32.5 million.
The Liam Neeson thriller "Non-Stop" slid to third place with $15.4 million in its second weekend.
In limited release, Wes Anderson's European caper "The Grand Budapest Hotel" notched one of the highest per-screen averages ever. On four screens, it made an average of $200,000.
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- The U.S. Secretary of Commerce has arrived in the Gulf, where she will tell officials from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar that closer economic cooperation with Washington is a bridge to building deeper security ties with the U.S.
Penny Pritzker told The Associated Press from the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi on Sunday that the U.S. is open to investments from its oil-rich Arab allies. U.S. exports to the three countries were some $50 billion last year.
Her visit precedes a planned trip this month by President Barack Obama to Saudi Arabia in an effort to patch over strained relations.
Pritzker is traveling with 21 American companies and is the first U.S. Commerce Secretary to visit the Gulf region with a trade mission in 15 years.
MICROSOFT-END OF XP
REDMOND, Wash. (AP) -- Microsoft is preparing its customers for the end of technical support and security updates for its XP operating system.
As of April 8, Microsoft says it will retire its old, dependable operating system, which first shipped in 2001.
Greg Sullivan, Microsoft's director of Windows, says "We can't continue to support it forever."
Sullivan says it's a standard industry practice to retire operating systems in the constantly evolving tech world. He points to Apple's recent decision to end support for its Snow Leopard operating system, which shipped in 2009.
XP users are being asked to go to AmIRunningXP.com for information on how to upgrade their systems.
Microsoft is encouraging its customers to upgrade to its Windows 8 operating system, which has received mixed reviews.
FOOD AND FARM-PIG PENS
FAIR OAKS, Ind. (AP) -- The pork industry is reacting to consumer pressure by investing millions of dollars to give pregnant pigs room to move.
They're converting and building barns to put sows in group pens instead of individual stalls too narrow for the animals to turn around.
Animal rights activists have been pressuring farmers to stop using gestation stalls.
Farmers like Malcolm DeKryger are experimenting with group pens, but say the move isn't cheap or easy. Bigger sows can hog food and bully their smaller sisters.
DeKryger has installed electronic feeding systems on his farm in Fair Oaks, Ind., so each pig can be fed individually.
But the equipment adds hundreds of thousands of dollars to construction costs, and he says he's still trying to find ways to keep sows from hurting each other.
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