LONDON, OCT. 6 -- For Europe's bankers and financiers, the federal budget crisis in Washington appears to be the latest symptom of a deeper disease that some fear could render the United States the sick man of the new world economic order.
America's image abroad as a haven of financial opportunity had already been badly shaken by the triple whammy of the savings and loan crisis, weakness in the U.S. banking system and the decline of the real estate market, especially in the Northeast. In the past few months, foreign investors have been fleeing from U.S. markets, while major British banks have written off some of their American investments the same way they wrote off loans to Third World debtors a few years ago.
Now comes the budget crisis, which is seen by many Europeans as an act of mystifying pettiness and self-destruction by politicians unable or unwilling to face the economic music at a time when the United States is heading into recession.
"It's a real crisis of credibility for your political leadership," said Tim Fox, economist with Midland Montagu here, an affiliate of the giant Midland Bank. "The actual numbers being talked about were so small, they only amounted to tinkering -- and yet your leaders still couldn't agree to them. So what prospects are there to take on the really difficult decisions? That's the thing that worries people the most."
Most analysts here believe a U.S. recession has already begun and have adjusted their investment advice accordingly. But the real danger, some warn, is not falling short-term profits but deeper problems that could linger long after factors like the recession and the budget crisis fade.
"It's a lot more than just a cyclical blip," said Norbert Walter, chief economist with Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. "We're talking about deep, structural problems in the financial sector, with no real indication that American officials understand what has to be done or are prepared to do it."
None of the big foreign investors are pulling all of their money out of the United States. They say the market there is too big to ignore. But many are pulling back.
Last year, according to the New York investment banking firm of Salomon Brothers, there was a net inflow of direct foreign investment into the United States of $72.3 billion. This year, based on first-half figures, the tide is moving the opposite way -- a projected net outflow of $22 billion.
Behind the changing numbers, some see a permanent shift in the world's "trilateral" economic order in which the United States could slip behind both a Germany-dominated Europe and Japan in terms of economic importance, if not sheer size.
"When the United States sneezes, the world is no longer going to catch pneumonia," said David Lomax, economic adviser to National Westminster Bank here. "The United States is clearly no longer the dominant economic power. Over the next five years or more, it will be Europe that drives the world economy."
Throughout the industrialized world, financial markets are in turmoil. Germany's once staid banks have become far more aggressive and competitive as they seize opportunities in the former Soviet Bloc. British financial institutions are coping with double-digit inflation and interest rates along with a fall in property values here. Japan's banks are reeling from their own real estate bust and a sharp decline on the Tokyo stock exchange.
But none of these markets is perceived to be suffering from the same combination of forces that is plaguing the United States. "It's not only yesterday, but today and tomorrow as well," said John Lipsky, director of international research for Salomon Brothers' London office.
"Yesterday's problem was the savings and loan crisis, and that's still with us. Today's is the commercial banks, and no one knows how long that can last. Tomorrow's is not even being contemplated yet, but we believe there are going to be major problems for insurance companies because of the decline and deterioration of the commercial real estate market that they've so heavily invested in."
To some foreign analysts, the budget crisis illustrates one of the major flaws in the American governmental system of checks and balances: an executive branch that is hamstrung when it comes to key financial decisions.
"In your system, the executive can't take decisions," said economist Lomax. "For a long time, it didn't matter, because the United States was not in competition with other countries in areas in which governmental performance was a major factor. But that's changing. In industrial policy, financial management and financial regulation, you're now in hard competition with Europe and Japan and the performance of the government can be crucial."
The savings and loan crisis, whose price tag has risen steadily with recent projections put at up to $500 billion, has deeply shocked many European analysts. Among those most badly hit have been European insurers, such as Lloyd's of London, that find they are being asked to pick up part of the bill by paying off on policies for failed S&Ls.
"We look with some horror at what's been going on," said Richard Lawrence, director of Merrett Underwriting, Lloyd's second-largest underwriting group. Some 80 percent of Merrett's business comes from the United States.
"It seems to me the regulators are saying the problem was caused largely by criminal acts, which in my view is a nonsense," Lawrence added. "That's certainly an element, but more important was the irresponsible way the regulators behaved in encouraging S&Ls to get out of their depth and into businesses they didn't understand and in allowing some very strange accounting methods. Now when it's all gone wrong, they try to blame someone else."
American banks are viewed here as next on the list of troubles. Several analysts in London cited a recent General Accounting Office report that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. could face net losses of $21 billion over the next three years. In July, FDIC Chairman L. William Seidman warned that the fund was "under considerable stress." It could survive "an ordinary recession," he added, but "if it were a long, a deep recession, then we would be in trouble."
"It looks to me like that's exactly the kind of recession they're heading into," said a spokesman for a major British bank, who asked not to be identified. "The FDIC is strapped for cash -- it's bankrupt -- and the insurance industry is looked upon as a suitable deep pocket to dip into."
British banks already have been hit by the steep drop in the American real estate market. Perhaps the biggest victim has been National Westminster, whose American subsidiary, NatWest Bancorp., reported a $106 million loss in the second quarter of 1990 due largely to real estate losses, some of which were incurred because of NatWest's stake in New York real estate billionaire Donald Trump's collapsing empire.
The American losses caused National Westminster to report pretax profits for the first half of the year far below forecasts. The bank said it plans to cut 11,000 jobs and has closed 50 branches.
British bankers also are not happy about bills introduced in Congress earlier this year that would impose new restrictions on foreign-owned companies doing business in the United States. Most of the bills are aimed at Japanese investors, but ironically they would hit harder at British firms, which with some $118 billion in direct U.S. holdings remain by far the largest foreign investors in the United States.
Like many financial experts in the United States, British analysts see the solution to U.S. economic problems as a full-scale reform of the American banking system. But they question whether a U.S. government that can't agree on even minor cuts in the federal budget has the political will to come up with real and painful reforms.
"People here are concerned and a bit confused," said Salomon Brothers' Lipsky. "The mood certainly is turning very negative and the budget crisis doesn't help at all."