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US shutdown blurs Obama's Asia focus

FTI expects little impact from US budget impasse if solved quickly

Representatives of Thailand's private sector are sure that US policy-makers will soon achieve a compromise on their budget impasse, even though President Barack Obama has been forced to cancel trips to Malaysia and the Philippines, and may miss the Apec Summit in Bali and the Asean Summit in Brunei next week.

Federation of Thai Industries chairman Payungsak Chartsutipol said yesterday that so far, no Thai exporters had been affected by the US shutdown. While he does not expect much of a negative impact even if it lasts as long a similar incident in 1996 - three weeks - he conceded that the longer the conflicts drag on, the more damage would be done.

He added that the US economy was not as strong as it was in the past.

"Thailand should brace for volatility in the foreign-exchange rate, though the Bank of Thailand must have traced capital flows and made preparations," he said.

While not worried about the current row over the US budget, former BOT governor Tarisa Watanagase said the debt ceiling would eventually have to be raised or the United States would have to default on debt and face a downgrade in its credit rating. She said if that happened, it would be tough to restore investor confidence, though the demand for the dollar and US Treasury bonds would remain high.

Tarisa acknowledged that it was difficult to predict capital-flow movements, but it was certain Thailand would face higher volatility.

"All must prepare for this and keep strong. Financial institutions, businesses and households should not build up excessive debt, while policy-makers should keep updated on political movements in all countries," she advised.

Bangkok Bank president Chartsiri Sophonpanich predicted that the Obama administration would eventually succeed in ending the stalemate on the budget and move on to resolve the debt-ceiling issue, curtailing economic impact. Meanwhile, at this critical moment, the US Federal Reserve is expected to take higher responsibility in maintaining the economic momentum, he said.

Speculation that the Fed would keep the pace of its bond-buying programme has driven the Stock Exchange of Thailand and other Asian bourses, though investors remain nervous over the US budget gridlock. While the SET Index rose 1.43 per cent to 1,429.18 points yesterday, the baht stabilised at 31.25 against the US dollar.

The budget gridlock, which sent home some 800,000 federal workers on October 1, and the violence in the Middle East are now two forces diverting Obama's attention from Asia, where he sees the future. Asia will witness almost half of global economic growth outside the US in the next five years, according to the White House. And ripples from the rise of an increasingly assertive China are unsettling US allies from Japan to the Philippines.

"What's happening in Syria, Iran and the like take up an enormous amount of oxygen," said Kurt Campbell, an architect of Obama's Asia policy.

"There are deeply consequential things playing out there right now that demand a high degree of American engagement. At the same time, there are also pressures domestically."

At press time, the situation in the US remained unchanged. Obama said he was "exasperated" with Republican lawmakers, while House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said Obama refused to negotiate with congressional leaders. The president has warned markets that the crisis could trigger a catastrophic US debt default.

The US Chamber of Commerce deployed its army of lobbyists to stress the importance to Capitol Hill lawmakers of ending the first partial government shutdown in 17 years. Across town, top Wall Street executives gathered at the White House and warned of the consequences if no resolution was found to the next crisis, a potential default on federal debt.

"This requires compromise by both sides," said Blair Latoff Holmes, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Chamber of Commerce, which represents companies, including ExxonMobil Corp and Ford Motor Co.

"We will continue to hold discussions with lawmakers urging them to address this and stop kicking the can down the road."


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