At stake in the fiscal cliff: U.S. standing in the world

There has been plenty of discussion of what a failure to address the looming fiscal cliff could mean to the economy, ranging from a new recession to the loss of government contracts to higher taxes.

But some executives are arguing that even more is at stake: The United States’ standing as a global destination for investment, and maybe even its central role in the in the world financial system.

Greg Page, chief executive of Cargill (Cargill).

Gregory R. Page, chief executive of global agriculture giant Cargill, said Wednesday that if the negotiations break down and the nation goes over the fiscal cliff, the U.S. stands to lose credibility among international investors. 

As Page puts its, the U.S. benefits from “institutional bias” – people around the world trust the country’s economy and the stability of the political system. That has resulted in the dollar remaining the world’s preferred reserve currency, U.S. Treasury securities remaining the benchmark safe haven investment – and record low interest rates for companies like Cargill when they borrow or raise money on bond markets.

A failure to navigate the cliff could, he feels, be one of the types of events that starts to erode confidence in the country’s governance.

“People begin to doubt your institutions,” he said in an interview at Cargill’s Washington office. “If you take the name off and just look at the vital signs, you’d jump to all sorts of conclusions,” he said, referring to the country’s high debt and annual deficits.

The fallout would not be sudden. So far, investor attitudes toward the U.S. have been famously anomalous: Even when the country was at the epicenter of the 2008 financial crisis, it was also the preferred place to take refuge. Even when the previously unthinkable happened and the U.S. credit rating was nicked, interest rates fell. The U.S. system needn’t be perfect, in other words, only better than the next alternative.

But is the country’s position forever secure? The British pound once played the role of the dollar in the world economy, but the country has now adopted a severe austerity program for fear it was running out of string on world bond markets.

In talks in Washington this month, David Wright, head of the International Organization of Securities Commissions, said he feels world capital markets are on the verge of tremendous change. Currently, most money gets raised in a handful of financial centers – places like New York and London. Wright predicts the list will expand dramatically, perhaps in a decade or so, as countries like China and Brazil develop more sophisticated capital markets, allow their currencies to be exchanged more freely, and earn the trust of world money managers.

Could there eventually be a shift of that “institutional bias” away from the U.S. and toward  other nations seen as both stable and more prudently managed? That type of thinking may not be part of the short game being played out right now between President Obama and Congress. But from where some key executives sit, atop businesses that invest globally, it should be.

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Ezra Klein · December 19, 2012

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