Is The U.S. Still A Safe Haven For Investors?
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And in Europe, the debt news has been bad too. The uncertainty has been undermining financial markets, both there and in this country. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that investors on both sides are looking across the Atlantic for signs about where to put their money.
TOM GJELTEN: To know what and when to buy or sell, you need some sense of what's wrong with the economy, what it will take to turn things around and whether governments will actually make the right moves. None of this is clear. David Owen, chief European economist for Jefferies International on the trading floor in London this afternoon, said investors there were watching for some definitive statement from a responsible European policymaker.
DAVID OWEN: In general, people are just waiting for development, say, we have another...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Unintelligible).
OWEN: Oh. One sec. Something is happening.
GJELTEN: What was happening was that the European Central Bank at that moment was announcing it might buy Italian and Spanish government bonds. That was welcomed news on this side of the ocean. A rush of selling on Wall Street turned quickly into a rush of buying. It was another sign of how developments in the U.S. and Europe are linked - on many levels. Europeans buy a lot of things that are made in America from bulldozers to airplanes to high-tech equipment. U.S. businesses gain when Europe is in a buying mood, and lose when Europe stops spending.
IRWIN STELZER: You know, that's a pretty big market for us. So I do think it affects us.
GJELTEN: Irwin Stelzer is director of economics studies at the Hudson Institute. When Americans don't buy enough to keep a U.S. economy out of recession, U.S. business depends even more on exports to other countries. Eswar Prasad is professor of trade policy at Cornell University.
ESWAR PRASAD: U.S. attempt to export its way out of its recession is going to be held back if the European economy doesn't recover.
GJELTEN: But here's the challenge. It's not immediately clear what European governments should do or can do to solve their debt problems, prompt employers to hire workers and get firms to expand. Each government sets its own tax and spending policies, but all use the same money, the euro, so they can't devalue their currencies when they get overextended. That means economic policymaking in Europe is really complicated. For example, the varying debt burdens from one country to another may somehow need to be equalized. Irwin Stelzer, of the Hudson Institute, says the European problem could be solved in theory.
STELZER: It can't be solved by doing more of what they're doing. It's got to be solved by what you and I would call a more radical approach.
GJELTEN: Like maybe having the eurozone as a whole issue its own bonds rather than each country financing its debt separately. The wealthier euro governments like Germany are now stepping up to help their more indebted neighbors, including Italy and Spain, on the condition that those countries cut government spending. But David Owen of Jefferies International, an investment banking firm, says this insistence on austerity policies could actually choke off any recovery and make things worse.
OWEN: If Italy and Spain were put all through these reforms and tighten fiscal policy, then for sure they could be back in recession. So you've got all these things going on which doesn't suggest this is going to be over in the next week or so.
GJELTEN: That's Europe's dilemma, but some leaders there claim their economic problems are due also to what's been happening over here. Olli Rehn, the European Union's monetary affairs commissioner, today blamed the collapse of European stock markets in part on Washington.
OLLI REHN: Investor sentiment has been negatively affected by the impact of the debt ceiling negotiations in the United States.
GJELTEN: Well, maybe. Still, the events of the past few days have not deterred global investors from buying U.S. Treasury notes. For the all the economic problems here, it seems the U.S. dollar remains the ultimate safe haven for an anxious world, and people are desperate to find somewhere to park their money. The Bank of New York Mellon this week said it will actually charge its biggest depositors to hold onto their cash, effectively paying a negative interest rate. Some nervous investors will actually accept the deal. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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