By Wayne Cole and Jane Wardell
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia could be a step closer to losing its vaunted triple A credit rating after a deeply divided electorate left the country in limbo and foreshadowed a hung parliament where no party holds outright power.
The uncertain outcome of Saturday's federal election heightened fears Australia could be consigned to three years of minority government and paralysis on budget reform, a scenario that is expected to cause market jitters on Monday.
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"The market doesn't like uncertainty and the election result has delivered that in spades," AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver told Reuters, adding a ratings downgrade appeared likely.
"It will probably effect the Aussie dollar and I think the share market; we will see a negative knee-jerk reaction tomorrow."
Australia's debt levels, while relatively low on a global scale, have been heading in the wrong direction for years. All the most ambitious attempts to right the fiscal ship have been sunk by the ruling coalition government's lack of power in the upper house Senate.
Rating agencies have been patient with the political process up to now, but there are signs time might be running out.
"Australia should be doing so much better than it is," Oliver said.
A downgrade would be a political nightmare for whichever party is in power, after successive governments brandished the rating as a badge of honor. Only 10 nations have the top rating from all three of the major agencies.
Losing it would "be a blow to confidence" and could lead to a rash of downgrades for Australian banks and companies, the opposition Labor Party has warned.
In May, Moody's noted that governments of all stripes were finding it hard to rein in spending, and budget deficits had been repeatedly revised higher.
Treasurer Scott Morrison's latest forecast was for net debt to peak at 19.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by mid-2018. Yet as recently as the 2012/13 budget the peak had been projected to be less than 10 percent.
Standard & Poor's has been conspicuous in its silence since Morrison handed down his 2016/17 budget in May, prompting market speculation that it was considering changing Australia's outlook to negative, a precursor to a potential downgrade.
FEEL THE YIELD
The Business Council of Australia (BCA), which represents the country's largest businesses, called for a resolution to the political deadlock as soon as possible.
"While counting of votes is likely to continue for several days, Australians and Australian business can ill-afford gridlock, recriminations or in-fighting," said Christine Jackman, communications director of the BCA.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Sunday stressed that his government continued to rule in caretaker mode and he expected a resolution by the end of the week.
"What we will do is ensure that we work constructively and effectively with all of the members of the new parliament to ensure that the we deliver the stability and the leadership that Australians expect," Turnbull said.
Still, were Australia to slip from the top rankings this might not be the worst time for that to happen.
Central banks around the world are engaged in extraordinary stimulus campaigns that have driven borrowing costs to record lows. Many German and Japanese bonds pay less than nothing, with yields out to 10 years and longer in negative territory.
That has made global investors hungry for yield above all, and far less concerned with niceties such as credit ratings.
It was notable this week that when S&P stripped Britain of its top rating, yields still sank to all-time lows as investors wagered on more policy easing.
All of which makes Australian bonds' fat returns - 10-year paper pays 2 percent - attractive no matter the rating.
"Post-GFC (global financial crisis) the market has certainly paid less heed to ratings than it did before," says Sean Keen, a consultant for Credit Suisse. "The global squeeze on fixed income assets has meant that supply, coupon and availability all now rank above the rating in the minds of many buyers of government bonds."
(Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook and Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Editing by Stephen Coates)