We’ve cribbed the title of a provocative post by Satyajit Das at Eurointelligence. He argues that the US’s days of continuing to borrow abroad with little worry as to the consequences may be nearing an end.
A good companion piece is Menzie Chinn’s Implications of adjustment to riskier dollar assets in a portfolio balance framework, illustrated in three steps . Great minds are working alike.
The key issue with US debt, which not enough analysts have focused on (Brad Setser being a noteworthy exception) is that our creditors are not merely lending to us to fund their exports. They are also lending us the money to pay interest on money they lent us in the past to buy their exports. At some point, the debt service component becomes too high relative to the portion that goes to fund current exports. Or the economies over time develop more robust consumer sectors and the importance of funding exports is less pronounced.
Here is the beginning of the Das post, which I recommend reading in its entirety:
High levels of debt are sustainable provided the borrower can continue to service and finance it. The US has had no trouble attracting investors to date. Warren Buffett (in his 2006 annual letter to shareholders) noted that the US can fund its budget and trade deficits as it is still a wealthy country with lots of stock, bonds, real estate and companies to sell.
In recent years, the United States has absorbed around 85% of total global capital flows (about US$500 billion each year) from Asia, Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Risk adverse foreign investors preferred high quality debt – US Treasury and AAA rated bonds (including asset-backed securities (“ABS”), including mortgage-backed securities (“MBS”)). A significant portion of the money flowing into the US was used to finance government spending and (sometimes speculative) property rather than more productive investments.
The real reason that the US actually has not experienced a sovereign debt crisis is that it finances itself in it own currency. This means that the US can literally print dollars to service and repay it obligations.
The special status of the US derives, in part, from the fact that the dollar is the world’s major reserve and trade currency. The dollar’s status derives, in part, from the gold standard that once pegged the dollar to the value of gold. The peg and full exchangeability is long gone. The aura of stability and a safe store of value based on the strength of US economy and military power has continued to support the dollar. In 2003, Saddam Hussein, when captured, had US$750,000 with him – all in US$100 bills. The dollar’s favoured position in trade and as a reserve currency is based on complex network effects.
Many global currencies are pegged to the dollar. The link is sometimes at an artificially low rate, like the Chinese renminbi, to maintain export competitiveness. This creates an outflow of dollars (via the trade deficit that in turn is driven by excess US demand for imports based on an overvalued dollar). Foreign central bankers are forced to purchase US debt with dollars to mitigate upward pressure on their domestic currency. The recycled dollars flow back to the US to finance the spending. This merry-go-round is the single most significant source of liquidity creation in financial markets. Large, liquid markets in dollars and dollar investments are both a result and facilitator of the process and assist in maintaining the dollar’s status as a reserve currency.
The dominance may be coming to an end. There is increasing discussion of re-denominating trade flows in currencies other than US$. Exporters are beginning to invoice in Euro or Yen. There are proposals to price commodities, such as oil and agricultural goods, in currencies other dollars. Some countries have abandoned or loosened the linkage of their domestic currency to the dollar. Others are considering such a move.
Foreign investors, including central banks, have reduced investment allocations to the dollar. The dollar’s share of reserves has fallen from a high of 72% to around 61%. Foreign investor demand for US Treasury bonds has weakened in recent times. Low nominal (negative real) rates on interest and dollar weakness are key factors.
Foreign investors may not continue to finance the US. At a minimum, the US will at some stage have to pay higher rates to finance its borrowing requirements. Ultimately, the US may be forced to finance itself in foreign currency. This would expose the US to currency risk but most importantly it would not be able to service its debt by printing money. The US, like all borrowers, would become subject to the discipline of creditors.
For the moment, the US$ is hanging on – just.
The post continues here.