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Around world, threat of U.S. default induces shrugs

By Bernard Condon

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 14 2013 3:21 p.m. MDT

Insurer Allianz Group in Munich holds Treasurys in its portfolios to maturity, so a downgrade would have no effect on the company, spokesman Michael Matern said.

Another area of concern is what Wall Street calls "liquidity" — the ability to access cash quickly to pay lenders and suppliers. Many companies have assets they could sell to scare up money in a pinch. But any panic in markets after a U.S. default would make it difficult to find buyers just when they are needed most. Buyers fled after the collapse of Lehman Brothers five years ago, turning a bankruptcy into a financial crisis and plunging economies around the world into recession.

On Friday, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon sought to reassure investors that his bank was prepared. He noted in a conference call with reporters that it had $250 billion on deposit at central banks around the world. "We have enormous liquidity," Dimon said.

If other financial institutions are worried about liquidity or hits to their Treasury holdings, they're not showing it.

A statement from Singapore's DBS Bank, which has branches in many Southeast Asian countries, said it was not "unduly concerned" about a direct impact from a default. South Korea's Woori Bank doesn't believe South Korea would be hurt badly from a U.S. default. So it has made no contingency plans, said Jang Chung-sik, a spokesman.

The Philippine government thinks a default is unlikely but is moving to protect its economy anyway. At a news conference last week in the tiny nation of Brunei, the Philippine finance secretary said his country was taking steps to improve its "liquidity positions." But his boss, the Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, said at the same news conference that no step would guarantee protection.

"When the world's biggest economy turns belly-up, how can you actually protect yourself?" he said.

Protecting yourself during a U.S. default might not work in the chaos that ensues. In fact, the moves might backfire.

Stuart Speer, a financial advisor in Shawnee Mission, Kan., learned that the hard way two years ago. In August 2011, the U.S. came close to defaulting and S&P downgraded Treasurys. Speer dumped Treasurys from his holdings, fearing many investors would do the same and prices would tumble. But others ended up buying Treasurys and prices rose sharply.

"That's not in the textbook," he said.

This time, Speer has placed "stop-losses" on his stock holdings, a computer order to sell if prices fall below a certain level. But aside from that, he's not doing much, saying little would help.

"There is no fail-safe," he said.

Except maybe cash. Spooked by the financial crisis, big U.S. companies in the S&P 500 stock index have piled up a record $1.1 trillion of cash. They've drawn criticism for not using it to expand or hire.

But the move may end up being wise. Many now have enough to pay their bills for several months in a pinch, letting them avoid the panicked lenders that refused them money in the financial crisis. The cash cushion may help explain why U.S. stocks haven't sold off more as default approaches.

"Investors know that for better or worse, most companies have become their own banks," said Colas, the ConvergEx's strategist. "In a way, we've been preparing for this (default) since the financial crisis."

Associated Press writers Steve Rothwell in New York, Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris, David McHugh in Frankfurt, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong, Youkyung Lee in Seoul, Joe McDonald in Beijing, Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo and Jim Gomez in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, contributed to this report.

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