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Thread: America will bounce back

  1. #1
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    Default America will bounce back

    October 2, 2008 Thursday

    America will bounce back

    Financial crisis is hitting folk hard, but 'can-do' spirit will finally prevail

    By Bhagyashree Garekar, US Correspondent

    WHEN I first met Mr Robert Walsh at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, the sages assembled on the Swiss mountain-top were predicting a nasty recession, the US was plugging billions of dollars into a stimulus package to shake off the sub-prime drag, and Europe was agog at a gaping fraud at a French bank.

    Mr Walsh, the president of a small Silicon Valley firm, was unperturbed.

    Eight months on, the Davos direness seems borne out. Wall Street opened this week with its biggest fall ever, the stuffing has been knocked out of big-name investment firms, banks are tense and tight-fisted with money. Experts hear the footfall of a recession clearer than ever.

    Mr Walsh? He is still buoyant.

    The source of his optimism is his South San Francisco-based firm. It cultivates custom-designed bugs that eat up farm waste and, er, excrete petrol. That is petrol the firm hopes to market at US$50 (S$71) a barrel if it gets past trials to mass production in about two years.

    Mr Walsh is deeply aware of his good fortune. 'We're more insulated out here, I know,' he told me. 'I have friends in New York who work in investment banks and they are...' he trailed off.

    While his personal stock investments took a hit, he remains confident that he can raise more money for his US$20 million start-up when he needs it. 'We're well-funded until the end of next year. I'm not too concerned, we know a good story will always find money. Other Silicon Valley firms will tell you the same.'

    Beyond the Valley, things are a lot scarier. Ugly signs have been popping up like mushrooms in the lovely suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, the prosperous states surrounding the US capital.

    I have seen neighbours avert their eyes as they walk past signs that grimly announce 'Public Auction, home foreclosed'. Realtors conduct bus tours - snacks, drinks and engaging commentary included - to ferry prospective buyers to such sites of soured American dreams.

    The lucky among the evicted end up in homeless shelters. In some parts of the country, tent cities have sprung up for the victims. I have heard the tale of a woman, a real estate broker herself, who moved into her sport utility vehicle with her large dog after losing her own home.

    Those who did not foresee a future of falling house values and spiralling mortgage payments are now at the mercy of large forces beyond their control.

    A woman I met in Denver, where I had attended the Democratic convention in August, took a deep breath when I called to ask how people in her town felt about taxpayers bailing out Wall Street.

    Taimica was detached but articulate: 'What can I say? I'm living that financial crisis. My husband and I are barely making it on the paycheque. Yesterday, we filled out for food stamps, but we are not eligible, there are needier families. I don't know what do, there's no food in the house and I have three children. We're behind in the mortgage. It makes no difference to my life that the government will spend billions to bail out Wall Street. I know that people in the town are upset. But I have bigger problems to worry about.'

    I could recall her without difficulty - a security guard whom I had chatted with. She was more cheerful then.

    Mirth is now in short supply.

    In between news clips of ashen-faced Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson pleading before Congress to support the bailout package and the two presidential contenders jostling for face time, a TV network here aired an interview with a cattle-farmer in the West.

    'Out here,' he was saying, 'a man's word counts. If we shake hands on a cow at a certain price, we honour it, let the market go up or down. I make a loss, I pay for it. I sure don't look for a bailout.'

    The weatherbeaten rancher in a cocky cowboy hat made a point that resonates throughout the country about the 'folks in Washington'.

    It has hit the Americans hard that the financial crisis has been brought on by some of the most highly-educated and highly-paid people in the country.

    Con men, crazed moghuls or panicked masses did not create the meltdown, noted Mr Dick Meyer, a radio journalist.

    'It was caused by financial bureaucrats of the baby boom generation who were paid megabucks for office jobs, who wear Patagonia fleece, $12,000 Brioni suits and read books about 'reinventing the Self'.'

    He is not alone in thinking that Wall Street today is more a mirror than an aberration.

    Last year, the day I took up my posting as The Straits Times' US correspondent, a bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 and injuring 145.

    Experts weighed in on the outdated US infrastructure. But you did not have to go far from Washington to learn about it. Right here in the nation's capital, the sense of dilapidation hangs over aged buildings like a fog in winter. The subway lacks the gleam of Singapore's MRT.

    But it is also as true that life is going on as people are absorbing the shock. Complete strangers find solace in discussing the state of their 401(k) retirement investments on the subway. Even as foreclosures have hit scores of DC neighbourhoods, property prices in the posh Georgetown area have held firm.

    Private schools are filled to capacity by parents willing to pay by the thousand.

    Flights to Las Vegas, stewardesses will tell you, are always full. Seems like gambling is turmoil-proof. Seasonal sales, at Macy's and other big and small stores, have no difficulty attracting shoppers. But retailers doubt that Thanksgiving sales will touch previous records.

    But, certainly, there is no despair of the kind I saw on a visit to South Korea in 1998, when it was in the throes of the Asian crisis. Seoul was all distress sales and restless workers.

    As the United States begins the process of climbing back from the brink, longtime observers see the can-do American spirit as a great asset.

    'The US is distinguished by its ability to bounce back. This is a resilient country. It will run smack into a catastrophe and work itself out of the disaster. I believe the US will come out of this crisis,' said Singapore's US Ambassador Chan Heng Chee at a conference here last week.

    'The question is how long it will take.'

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  2. #2
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    October 2, 2008 Thursday

    US headed for 'protracted downturn'

    By Grace Ng

    THE United States economy is likely to face an extended slowdown, say two hedge fund experts.

    Mr John Rowsell, chief executive of US-based Glenwood, noted that the credit crisis differs from previous market shocks, such as the bear market following the bursting of the bubble in 2000, because it is 'more protracted'.

    The question now is whether the downturn will be U-shaped or a more drawn-out L-shape, said Mr Rowsell, who is here to visit clients.

    Singapore-based Timothy Peach, head of sales for Man Investments, a global alternative investments manager, agreed: 'We could well be in an L-shaped recession.'

    But he noted that the recovery may also take place sooner than in the case of Japan, as the US government has 'taken action much more quickly - one year into the crisis'.

    Japan took five years to act and the downturn lasted about a decade.

    Man Investments owns Glenwood, which manages US$7.4 billion (S$10.6 billion) of assets in funds of hedge funds.

    Mr Rowsell said he expects to see a 'stabilisation of risk in the market' as excess leverage - which caused some of the problems - is removed from the system.

    Leverage is likely to be 'reduced dramatically' at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley after they lower their credit levels drastically - in line with regulations after converting from investment banks to commercial ones. But it will still take Washington's US$700 billion bailout plan to restore stability, he said.

    The volatile situation is not being helped by hedge funds reportedly grappling with an outflow of investor funds. Mr Rowsell noted that there is likely to be a 'consolidation in the hedge fund industry' as investors opt to put their funds with large funds that have stronger balance sheets, while smaller, marginal players will be forced to exit.

    Responding to a question about Asian investors' interest in Man Investments' funds, Mr Peach noted that the group has continued to see a 'high level of interest', apart from the past month, when investors have been 'frozen like rabbits in the headlights'.

    High net worth individuals are now 'prepared to pay a premium for capital protection', so Man Investments has seen 'strong inflows' into those products, he added.

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