Fran O'Sullivan: Hit US where it hurts - in credit rating


What on earth is stopping the "big cheese" rating agencies like Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch from giving the United States a well-deserved wallop by taking away its triple A credit rating?

If any country deserves a massive kick-in-the-pants for so mismanaging its own financial affairs it is the US.

When Bill English resumed the finance minister's portfolio in late 2008 after nine years in opposition he could hardly have expected the New Zealand dollar would by now come to be seen as a "safe haven".

But the upshot of endemic US mismanagement is the kiwi is soaring to stratospheric levels against the greenback, eroding export competitiveness and introducing what English sanguinely describes as a "headwind" to slow the much needed rebalancing of the New Zealand economy.

By mid-afternoon yesterday the kiwi had reached a new post-float high of just over US87c, as Barack Obama's attempt to jawbone United States politicians into an agreement to raise the debt ceiling remained locked in what the President described as a "dangerous stalemate."

Watching Obama's televised attempt to bring the Republican grandees into line with the proposal to raise the United States' US14.3 trillion ($16.4 trillion) debt ceiling so Washington can pay its bills was an extraordinarily surreal affair.

It is hard to credit that this is the very same super-power that less than 15 years ago used its own bully pulpit to harass Asian nations over the particular brand of "crony capitalism" that was said to have brought the "tigers" to their knees.

Hard to credit also that this is the very same super-power that had to dispatch US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (sans her usual upswept hairdo) to Hong Kong to reassure Asian (read mainland China) investors that Obama and the Congress will ultimately reach a deal.

But America's political elites are now so out of touch with world opinion - let alone their domestic countrymen - that they will take their nation to the brink of international bankruptcy to score political points.

Neither English - nor for that matter Reserve Bank Governor Allan Bollard - have much in their respective toolboxes to head-off the surging NZ dollar.

A good deal of this is speculative. Some of it is predicated on the belief that domestic inflationary pressures mean Bollard will have to start hiking rates sooner than forecast.

But, given the ongoing crisis in the US - and the potential for serious impacts on the world economy if selfish US politicians don't get their act together smartly - it would seem more prudent to leave things as they are until the international situation gels.

English is not commenting on what the Reserve Bank may or may not do tomorrow. What he does say is that the dollar crisis underlines the need for the New Zealand economy to be internationally competitive on a number of fronts.

In typical under-stated manner, the finance minister stresses that the "reality" for the US, UK and Europe dealing with their mounting debt is "pretty grim".

"The current debate in the United States over a default is just a symptom of that. We are starting to look like something of a safe haven compared with that."

Adding to the pressures on New Zealand exporters is that the US dollar still retains its reserve currency status. It has enjoyed that status since the end of World War II with the greenback essentially being the world's main currency for carrying out international transactions across a wide range of commodities: Not only is oil - vital to New Zealand's domestic and international transport - bought and sold in US dollars. But so too is milk powder, which is our prime commodity export.

New Zealand exporters are being hit by a double whammy. They are being hammered by the strengthening of the kiwi against the greenback. But the refusal of the Chinese authorities to allow a faster appreciation of the yuan is also eroding the ability to get bigger NZ export returns out of that market. Not an easy situation to bridge.

So, how did the US get itself into such a space? As can be expected in the US, it depends on what side of the ideological divide you stand on. The Heritage Foundation blames the deficit explosion on the rapid growth of social security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest costs.

The right-of-centre think tank dismisses the view that weak revenues caused by recessionary times and the Bush (2001 and 2003) tax cuts are a big part of the problem.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities blames the economic downturn, the Bush tax cuts and the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

According to estimates the "Global War on Terror" has cost the United States between US3.7 trillion and US$4.4 trillion to wage. The Watson Institute's staggering figures far outweigh the US$1 trillion Obama claims has been spent by the US (since 9/11) waging the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

But it is also chicken feed compared with economist and Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz's calculation that the combined cost of these wars is between US$5 trillion and US$7 trillion.

That's the kind of cash "emerging nations" like India will spend on upgrading their infrastructure in the next five years.

Pegging back these two wars - as planned - will release massive "savings". An accommodation between the White House and Capitol Hill is still predicted.

But the failure of the Government to bring its finances under control will continue - and should - have a huge impact on its standing in the world.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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