Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: America ignores harsh realities

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No solutions to 'quantitative easing' policy forthcoming

I tuned in to the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney wanting to know when the United States would begin to seriously wean itself off its diet of debt.

What a disappointment.

Neither the Democratic nominee nor his Republican challenger had anything compelling to say about the big issue of our times. How a once proud capitalistic country has become so mired in debt, so unprepared to live within its means and so reliant on the iniquitous policies of its central bank to keep it chugging along as it heads towards a financial cliff.

For months the Federal Reserve has been priming the US economy by printing money. In financial terms it's like giving a drunk more booze to wean him off last night's hangover.

In the United States it's called "quantitative easing" - a pernicious policy that is somewhat akin to global financial warfare. A "winner takes all" approach keeps the US dollar artificially low and beggars competing exporters from other economies like ours as the former New Zealand industrialist Hugh Fletcher touched on this week.

There is a real sense of frustration and anger among our own exporting community at the impact of this self-centred US policy on other nations.

The US has strongly resisted suggestions that the greenback should no longer be the global reserve currency and that the commodity trade should no longer be denominated in US dollars.

Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has indicated quantitative easing will end soon. But few serious players in the financial markets believe this is a final move.

Veteran US investor Jim Rogers dismisses Bernanke as "just an Ivy League professor" who has set the US economy on a path it might never recover from with the economic patient now heading for the morgue. Rogers believes the US should not have bailed out big banks with government money; he also believes the Fed has set itself (and the US government) on the path to bankruptcy. He has been strident in taking it to US politicians over their combined failure to get their government's accounts back in order.

Romney also dismisses the notion that some banks are "too big to fail". But the regulatory changes he proposed during the debate were quickly picked apart by the financial newspapers.

Personally, I did not feel Romney served up any seriously big hits against Obama. Sure he was commanding compared to Obama's more thoughtful presentation. Aggressive with it, too.

The presidential debate ranged across economic issues, tax cuts, job creation, the sustainability of health care funding and the federal government's role.

Romney also promised across-party collaboration - which the US desperately does need if it is to tackle the snowballing fiscal problems it faces as a result of the Bush tax cuts and Obama's Medicare.

Romney wants to cut taxes by 20 per cent claiming this step will be fiscally neutral as it will be funded by the removal of various deductions. The Obama camp says it will just expand the government's deficit further. The numbers do not add up.

In this environment expect Bernanke to step in again, just compounding the whole dreadful mess.

These issues are of enormous importance to New Zealand.

As China's growth motor slows our export industries are feeling the pressure of trying to compete in an environment where the NZ dollar is artificially high as a result of the deliberate US policy to lower the dollar and make its own exports more competitive.

Rakon chairman Bryan Mogridge spoke passionately about this at the China Business Summit in Auckland this week. Companies like Rakon which are listed in New Zealand receive less revenue back from their overseas operations as a result of the high Kiwi dollar. This means less profits and lower share prices making companies vulnerable to takeovers.

Some companies are considering moving their operations - and their listings - lock, stock and barrel overseas to survive.

If this happens many more New Zealand manufacturing jobs will be lost.

Fletcher also had the guts to speak out about this situation saying the "fatalistic acceptance of a high exchange rate and big current account deficits is not good enough."

Fletcher, who is also a former Reserve Bank director, tends to be dismissed by the "there is no alternative crowd."

But in an environment where our economy is being made more marginal by the inability of Obama, Bernanke and also Romney to really face up to the need for the US to be a responsible player in the global economic environment, New Zealand also needs to pay more attention to its economic survival.

Once he has finished buttering up the Hollywood moguls, Prime Minister John Key might think about giving a serve to the next incumbent in the White House over the current failure of the US to live up to the economic tenets that it has previously prided itself on.

- NZ Herald

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