WASHINGTON — It’s going to take a lot more political bungling to do any permanent damage to America’s reputation or wreck its financial markets.
The U.S. government’s partial shutdown and a near-miss with a debt default were a worldwide embarrassment that distracted political leaders and likely slowed the economy.
Yet the world still runs on U.S. dollars. Foreign investors still see Treasury debt as the safest place to put their money. And foreign companies still view the United States as an ideal place to do business.
“It’s a paradox,” said Eswar Prasad, a specialist in international economics at Cornell University and the Brookings Institution. “Even when the U.S. is at the center of the financial turmoil, there is no other place that investors can turn to for safety.”
Congress certainly stirred up financial turmoil the first two weeks of October with a duel over President Barack Obama’s health care law.
But investors didn’t panic. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note was 2.62 percent on Sept. 30, a day before the shutdown began. The prospect of a default should have driven the yield much higher. Instead, the yield barely budged. It never rose above 2.73 percent.
“I think this was a sideshow,” said Christoph Kind, head of asset allocation at Germany’s Frankfurt-Trust investment firm. For all the hand-wringing in Washington about a budget crisis, Kind said the U.S. government’s budget deficit has been sinking.
“The fiscal situation in the U.S. is improving,” Kind said. “The budget deficit is going to be below 4 percent of (the U.S. economy) this year, and it’s declining steadily.”
No doubt, the standoff — which produced virtually no change in policy — dented America’s image and its economy at least temporarily. The last-minute deal reopened the government and suspended the debt limit. But it set the stage for another round of brinkmanship early next year. Repeated over time, a succession of crises might do lasting damage.
“We may have dodged a bullet again, but we think these episodes cumulate,” said Robert DiClemente, chief U.S. economist at Citigroup. There’s a “risk that at some point investors throw up their hands and say, ‘This has gone too far.’”
Outside the United States, “people are somewhat incredulous about it,” said Martin Sorrell, CEO of advertising giant WPP. “Going to the edge of a precipice doesn’t make much sense. If you ran a company this way, you’d be out of a job.”
In Mumbai, Gayatri Bedi, owner of a photography studio, said it was irresponsible for the world’s biggest economy to come so close to a default when the rest of the world depends on U.S. stability.
“In India, we don’t have a lot of respect for politicians because of corruption and incompetence,” she said. “It seems the U.S. politicians are becoming more like Indian ones.”
The research firm IHS Global Insight lowered its forecast for U.S. economic growth in the October-December quarter to a glacial 1.6 percent annual rate from 2.2 percent.
The crisis also distracted U.S. policymakers. Obama, who has been trying to focus U.S. foreign policy on China’s rising economic might and other issues in Asia, was forced to skip a regional economic summit in Indonesia.
Congress has yet to make progress on issues important to businesses: immigration reform, an overhaul of corporate tax rates, a long-term deal to shrink budget debts.
“The drama sucks the oxygen from the room,” said Nancy McLernon, president of the Organization for International Investment, which represents foreign companies doing business in America.
Still, McLernon said the political dysfunction hasn’t made America any less of an attractive market for foreign companies. When she attended a meeting in Britain early this month, most of the British executives there dismissed the standoff as political theater.