Does Foreign Ownership of U.S. Debt make us Vulnerable?

I would like to thank the hosts of Marginal Revolution for giving me the opportunity to answer questions about my book “The Price of Liberty: Paying for America’s Wars” and for allowing me to enter into a dialogue with your contributors on the issues I have raised in the book.

If you have not had the opportunity to see it, I also encourage you to read an Outlook piece I did for the Washington Post on May 6. It contains some of the views contained in my book. The Post has been kind enough to allow us to circulate this piece.

In view of the many very interesting postings on Marginal Revolution about international financial matters, I thought it would be useful to focus on one particular aspect of US strategic vulnerability — the growing risk that in the event of a major catastrophe in the US — from a major new act of terrorism, another massive hurricane, or a pandemic — the foreign capital that we have become used to receiving from the rest of the world, to the tune of $700 to 800 billion annually on a net basis at relatively low cost, will not be available in abundant amounts.

Alexander Hamilton called the debt the nation had accumulated during the Revolution the “price of liberty” and insisted that it be faithfully repaid, especially to foreign lenders, whose financial support was critical to the success of the Revolution. He recognized that were there to be another war foreign funds would also be critical to American success — so financial strength, which he took to mean sound finances and robust international creditworthiness, was important to future military strength.

The same is true today. If another major terrorist attack were to take place the budget deficit will increase dramatically as revenues drop due to economic weakness  and the government has to bear the cost of recovery and retaliation. Foreigners would then be reluctant to buy American financial assets or will demand a higher risk premium — i.e. higher interest rates — to do so. In either case there would be a major financial disruption harming an already weakened economy. It is worth noting the contrast between today and 9/11; in 2001 the US had had four years of surpluses as opposed to four years of deficits, and then we were only half as dependent on foreign capital as we are today. Both differences increase our vulnerability — and bigger imbalances in the next decade will add to that vulnerability.

This is a concern I have. I would be interested in whether others share it. Do you believe that heavy and growing dependence of foreign capital constitutes a strategic vulnerability in the event of a catastrophic attack. And if so what should be do to reduce this vulnerability?

I look forward to a dialogue on this and related subjects during my blog tour this week and thank you for your willingness to provide your thoughts.

Bob Hormats, Author,
“The Price of Liberty: Paying for America’s Wars” (Times Books)

Comments

It's long seemed to be a point of weakness for the US, but
does anyone, any country, benefit from the downward spiral
sceanrio? I see the risks, and worse case scenario is truly
awful, but the rest of the world, the lenders, specifically
have benefited from america's profligate ways, and it would
likely be in their best interests to continue to keep US
interests rates low.

Do you believe that heavy and growing dependence of foreign capital constitutes a strategic vulnerability in the event of a catastrophic attack.

Not for the US. Probably for the lenders. They will have lost money. We would still have the stuff (or factories or whatever the capital bought).

Anti-foreign investment advocates say, "We must limit foreign investment, for if the foreigners suddenly stop investing, we'll suddenly be in a bad position.", but I hear, "Let's go ahead and be in the bad position. That way it can't suddenly get any worse."

Morgan, they already are -- the most obvious impact of foreign capital is in the mortgage boom, and the main noticeable effect of swings in long term interest rates is on house prices.

Bob, so you're saying we used up a lot of the available foreign capital for 9/11 and Iraq, leaving us vulnerable to a credit crunch after a second terrorist attack? Suppose we hadn't invaded Iraq and we instead had saved our money to get ready for a possible second attack. After a second attack, would you advocate borrowing foreign capital to keep the economy going, or would you advocate waiting again, in case of a third or fourth attack? Should the foreign capital be permanently held in reserve, or does your argument give us a rule for deciding when it is appropriate to tap it?

If so, IMHO this sounds like an argument for an offensive strategy. If we hold our military and financial assets in readiness, in case of another attack, then each attack reduces our readiness and increases our vulnerability to the next attack. The only way to prevent a downward spiral is to deploy all our assets after the first attack, to break our enemies before they can strike again. (Assuming of course that our leadership isn't too incompetent to implement any strategy successfully).

What's the difference between us and foreign investors?

Or do you just mean foreign governments which can tax people to invest
in the US and the worry is that those funds aren't being friven by
market fundamentals and could be particularly fickle?

Wouldn't so-called US investors demand a similar risk premium after
another catastrophe? And why would it be different than 9/11 - put a
different way wouldn't it be the burden to show that it *would* be different?

And why suppose the market hasn't priced in an assumption of another attack?
And that continued avoidance of such would further lower the risk premium
demanded by investors both here and abroad?

Why would a swing from surplus to deficit - in the context of total
investable funds - put us on the brink? We're not talking about a huge
percentage of the federal budget yet alone of the economy...

If anything, doesn't the existence of substantial liquid investors provide
a sorely needed disciple and constraint on US policymakers?

Finally, is there any 'solution' that would not be worse than the supposed problem?

All we have are cheap t-shirts, houses, a bunch of cars that are expensive to fuel and maintain, and some Web 2.0 widgets

This comment is kinda tangential as it's more to do with the trade deficit than the investment of foreign capital, but what they hey, that's part of the fun of blogs.

Contrary to your opinion Morgan, the US does have factories, and it actually manufactures more than it ever has. It's just that manufacturing occupies a smaller percentage of the US economy than it used to and it also requires fewer people to manufacture the same number of goods. In the meantime, companies like Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, IBM, google, yahoo and lots of others have created and filled market niches which did not used to exist.

As another way to look at this natural evolution of the market, there's an unlimited demand for services, but a finite amount of space in the closet for goods. An analogy I like to draw is to the saying that Microsoft and Intel are competing to see if Microsoft can use up processor cycles faster than Intel can add them. Likewise GE and Toll brothers are competing to see if manufacturers can occupy sq ft faster than Toll brothers can add them. (After using Vista, I think Microsoft is ahead at the moment.)

Unless foreigners start buying up our excess housing inventory...can I interest any of you Saudi gentlemen in a Ft. Myers condo?

And here's the concept which Morgan is working with in that statement but not quite grasping.

Money is worthless in and of itself.

So if the foreigners choose not to buy our wares, while continuing to take dollars, then in the trade we got something for nothing. Even if it's a T-shirt, a house or anything else you care to list, it's still something. And something for nothing sounds like a good deal to me.

From my perspective, the bigger the trade deficit the better - cause we get the stuff and they get nada in return.

"... the US does have factories, and it actually manufactures more than it ever has. It's just that manufacturing occupies a smaller percentage of the US economy than it used to and it also requires fewer people to manufacture the same number of goods."

We have lost or are losing whole industries. Okay in peacetime, not so good during wars.

Most of the countries that are prominently funding the U.S. current account deficit, chiefly the oil exporters and China, lack a viable opposition party, by design of the governing power. Everything said about the U.S.'s need for capital in the event of an emergency applies to these countries, and applies moreso because (1) the governing party in these systems faces greater consequences if they should lose power than does the governing party in a constitutional democracy, and (2) such governments are less likely to receive funding in the event of an existential emergency because it is unknown whether a successor government will honor the debts of its predecessor.

I submit, then, that these governments have a greater need for currency reserves in hand than does the U.S. government, and that the market is simply moving liquid capital to those who value it most highly.

Oh, I am *shaking* in my boots about the possibility of having to borrow more money from foreigners. I mean, if suddenly the US needed to borrow a lot more money, or the Chinese dumped their US bonds, the yield on 10-year Treasuries could SURGE to six ... perhaps even six and a half percent. At those extorionist rates, people will make a *killing* on new purchases of government bonds.

"It is worth noting the contrast between today and 9/11; in 2001 the US had had four years of surpluses as opposed to four years of deficits, and then we were only half as dependent on foreign capital as we are today."

Are we "dependent on foreign capital?" Or are foreigners dependent on the US's financial markets and government bonds as a way to store liquidity that they don't know what to do with? Maybe both: it's a case of interdependence. But if I were to call it one way or the other I think they're more dependent on us than vice versa.

There is the possibility of a panic, a run on the US dollar, which could have disastrous consequences. There's a disturbing quirk here: the possibility of "multiple equilibria," of "rational panics." If everyone else thinks the dollar is sound, I can afford to assume the dollar is sound; but if, somehow, everyone else starts thinking the dollar will crash, then it will crash, so I'd better get out of the dollar as fast as I can even if I'm bullish on the US economy. Such events are almost by definition unpredictable, and I'm not even sure that the fact that foreigners hold a lot of US debt has anything to do with it... except that it might make us vulnerable in weird ways to international law. What if a charismatic and widely-admired UN secretary-general, with the reputation of a Gandhi, decided to veto a US foreign policy move by ordering all foreign governments to sell US bonds and refuse to buy more, and to expropriate US-based multinationals overseas? Suppose his moral authority is so great that everyone expects him to be obeyed? Can he *create* the rational panic that crashes the dollar? With what consequences?

If I'm not mistaken, Hamilton also wanted to have the federal government assume states' debts so that rich Americans would have a larger stake in the success of the country. I believe that to be true about foreigners as well. In fact, I believe that their investment in our bonds makes us all the more secure in the face of a potential economic downturn.

@Jody:
"This comment is kinda tangential as it's more to do with the trade deficit than the investment of foreign capital, but what they hey, that's part of the fun of blogs. "

Isn't the capital surplus the mirror image of the trade deficit?

Isn't the capital surplus the mirror image of the trade deficit?

Not necessarily, but they are closely related (hence "kinda" tangential).

The quick answer is "google exorbitant privilege"; the longer answer follows.

Let me give you an extended analogy. Suppose you get cash for doing work. What can you do with it?

1) You can spend it (Mmmm... shiny new TV)
2) You can invest it (stocks, savings, ...).
3) You can just hold onto it neither investing nor spending (beyond numismatists, people used to do this by stuffing it into/under a mattress, but over a small enough time scale, everyone does this - just look in your wallet)
4) You can destroy it. (that happens from time to time whether accidentally or on purpose. The Feds are the only ones I know who destroy large sums of money on purpose, but then again they also print it as they see fit too.)

Ignoring other factors, this all has to balance out as
Cash In = Spent + Invested + Held + Destroyed.

Analogizing this to a country (or foreigner) which has received cash from another country, they can
1) Spend it
2) Invest it
3) Hold onto it
4) Destroy it

In the model I think you have in your mind, you're considering just 1) and 2) where 3) and 4) are negligible so that

Cash In = Spent + Invested

Specifically, if you have yen, you need to either buy something from Japan or invest it in Japan. This is what I call the theme park model of currency where the theme park money is only good for purchases in the theme park. (Some countries take this analogy a little too far. When I visited the Bahamas, I had an easier time spending US dollars than Bahamian dollars.)

While I gave it a silly name, under a lot of circumstances, the model holds true as 4) is generally negligible in a macro sense and 3) is rare. For instance if you receive some Bahts for Christmas, they're not purchasing anything outside of Thailand.

However, the theme park model breaks down for some countries and the US in particular. First, you don't have to spend US dollars in the US. Lots of countries accept them as currency (see my Bahamian experience), they're used a lot in black markets (the fact that we have a trade deficit despite the massive overseas counterfeiting should tell you that money out doesn't have to equal money in), and noticeably in the oil markets. So foreigners can and do spend a significant amount of US dollars outside of the US.

Second, numerous countries around the world hold ginormous amounts of dollars as cash reserves. They do it some with others (notably the Euro, Pound, and Yen), but nowhere near to the extent of the dollar. Thus significant amounts of dollars just get held onto.

So the model the US is operating under with the rest of the world is

Cash In = Spent in the US + Spent elsewhere + Invested + Held.

The upshot being, cash out is not just cash in for the US as people spend it elsewhere and like to hold onto it as a cash reserve.

What are the implications to our national debt if oil is pegged to the euro rather than to the dollar?

An attack on the U.S. will negatively impact the creditor nations as well so they have an incentive to help prevent such a catastrophe. Moreover, the funding for this war is not overt and public because it is a war that is abstract and open-ended by design. You can't ask society for an indefinite period of sacrifice without risking social unrest - especially if we never see a definitive victory.

What is the difference between a U.S. investor and a foreigner investor be they Saudi or European individuals or the Chinese government? Discretionary investments are increasingly borderless so I won't focus on whether the investor is US-based or foreign. The question becomes one of financial and economic vulnerability after a catastrophe. Long term U.S. interest rates are determined by uncertainty (risk) and inflation. I think that inflation is controllable if the Fed tries to control it using the same tools it has successfully used the past twenty-odd years. I assume that a catastrophe will not change the Fed's mandate so I assume that inflation will be modest and positive. A catastrophe will increase uncertainty causing interest rates to rise. I assume that the catastrophe is not so bad that the U.S. government will cease to exist and that in continuing on there will be the political will to honour bonds. The important challenge will be to minimize the period of uncertainty by responding to the catastrophe in appropriate and sustainable ways. If the catastrophe is really bad and investment bankers (non-barterable occupation) have to become labourers (with barterable skills) and rebuild society, then there will be terrible inflation.

Jody: Under normal circumstances, dependence on foreign capital is not vulnerability. In fact, it helps to fuel growth in the U.S. and hold interest rates down. But it also lulls us into a false sense of complacency that large sums will always be there - and will be cheap. But consider what happens if there is a national crisis in the U.S., such as a dirty bomb attack in a big city. Then the economy would weaken, the budget deficit would grow because revenues would drop sharply and the government would need to spend more for retaliation and recovery. In such circumstances, foreigners would be cautious about additional investment in the U.S. and might pull funds out. In such circumstances, the dollar would collapse, interest rates would shoot up and the stock market would fall sharply. I am all for foreign investment, but our very low savings rate makes us more dependent on that than we should be - hence the above vulnerabilities.

DK: I was all for a tough response after the first attack. My point is that we were able to afford that because we had had four years of budget surpluses before that and were not nearly as dependent on foreign capital as we are today. Because of our dependence of foreign capital, we will need it for the foreseeable future. If we could break our enemies, I would be delighted. But that has proven to be a difficult task in Afghanistan and Iraq, so we need to be vigilant and prepared on the home front. And we need to have a sound fiscal policy that will enable us to be resilient if there is another attack, so that we can marshal our own resources and borrow from others if needed.

To Ilya Somin: You are correct that foreign capital can be an asset, and normally is. But it might not always be there when we need it, as I mentioned to Jody above. And your point is also correct that domestic capital could just as easily flee in the event if a crisis as foreign capital. Quite right. But the dramatic under-saving in the U.S. requires us to import foreign capital to the tune of about 7-8% of our GDP. And if a crisis should scare that money away, or domestic capital away, that would be a big problem. If we did not have such a big domestic savings gap, we would not need as much foreign capital; moreover, domestic capital is far less likely to flee the country than foreign capital. And it would not take an exodus of foreign capital to adversely affect our markets and our economy; by simply slowing down the inflow by a few hundred billions of dollars a year the impact would also be severe.

Gary Leff: Your point is equally valid. There is no real difference between foreign and domestic capital in so far as their ability to flee the country in the event of a crisis. It is the heavy dependence on foreign capital as a substitute for domestic savings that troubles me; the odds are that in the event of a foreign crisis, foreign private investors, and perhaps some governments as well, would be more cautious about investing here, or would demand a higher risk premium. So would domestic investors. So in either case, the markets and economy would suffer. But the foreign capital does not provide a discipline on the U.S., because it makes it easier to finance our deficit than it would be if we had to depend only or almost only on domestic savings. There are no easy solutions; one would be to increase the domestic savings rate, another is to continue to reduce the budget deficit; and still another is to encourage more foreign fixed investment as opposed to the potentially more vulnerable portfolio investment - which is the chief investment vehicle for foreigners.

Matt: That is true. It doesn't require a terrorist attack for foreigners to cut back on investment here. So far, the U.S. has been a profitable and secure market for most foreign investment, but that could change in a crisis, or overseas investors could see better opportunities at home or simply save less and spend more, which would mean less money flowing abroad to fund U.S. imbalances.

Cynbane: Your point that foreigners would be hurt by dumping dollars, thereby causing the dollar to decline, is certainly correct. But in a crisis situation, not everyone is rational. I think most governments would work together to avoid a collapse of the dollar by attempting to stabilize the currency markets, as they did after 9/11, but many private investors might be alarmed at the prospect of a mushrooming of the U.S. deficit and a sharp weakening of the economy - and thus avoid investment in the U.S. or pull some out. And that would have severe market and economic consequences. Remember that in contrast to a decade or two ago when there was no alternative to the dollar, there is now the euro.

To Nathan Smith: You are correct. There is a codependence here. I am not so much worried about the debt that foreigners hold - although they could always sell U.S. assets in a crisis - as I am that the U.S. depends so heavily on $700 - $800 billion of net inflows annually. Even a 20 - 25% reduction in that could cause the dollar to fall and interest rates to rise. Foreign central banks are less likely to sharply cut purchases of dollar assets, but panicked private investors could. That has happened in the past; and while it might be temporary, even a temporary disruption could be harmful to an economy already weakened by a terrorist attack or some other emergency.

To M.Hodak: Thank you for your point on surpluses and debt. My point about the four years of surpluses was not to say that it was decisive in our ability to finance the measures taken after 9/11. It was to underscore that fiscal policy was moving in the direction of reducing the federal debt at the time. It highlights precisely the point you have so cogently made - and I should have been more explicit. The ability of the U.S. to respond depended on the nation's ability to borrow in that emergency. If the deficit is headed up - as it has been since 9/11 - over time, that will reduce the government's borrowing capacity - or at least the ability to borrow cheaply, particularly if it becomes much greater at the end of the next decade that in is today. But it is also true, to get back to the earlier point, that if the government is borrowing heavily in a given year (e.g., had big deficits and thus must issue a lot of bonds), it will find it more costly to borrow. So deficits do matter to the cost of borrowing in a given year as well - of course so does the state of the economy and federal policy.

To Tim V.: You are absolutely right about Hamilton. In the first chapter of my book, I describe in detail the debate about "assumption" of state debts. Hamilton wanted to do that for just the reasons you mentioned. But Hamilton was also worried that the U.S. might not retain sound finances foreigners and our own citizens would not lend the government money on reasonable terms. For this reason, he advocated that any debt incurred should be accompanied by measures that would ensure its "extinguishment." By holding bonds, foreigners do indeed, as you suggest, have an interest in the economy, but if they see American finances turning sour, or the economy deteriorating, they can also sell. As an analogy, if you hold stock in a company you have a stake in its success, but if you are concerned about mismanagement you will surely sell that stock.

To Sean: I agree with you about herd mentality. That is why an emergency could trigger a pullout of money from the U.S. Even if only temporary, that could do
a lot of damage.

To Barkley Rosser: Thanks for your welcome to the "heavy play of the blogosphere. " I have enjoyed it and learned a lot. In my younger days, I played a little rugby - and there are certain analogies here to the heavy play there.

The dark matter theory is hard to assess. One reason the flows are not adverse to the U.S. yet is that much of the American investment abroad is equity capital, which tends to provide a greater return than debt capital. Whereas most foreign investment in the U.S. is debt capital, a lot of it is in short term deposits or Treasury bills and notes, which tend to have a relatively low return. That gives us a flow advantage, but that is likely to deteriorate as our debt to foreigners grows dramatically - as it seems destined to so given our ravenous demand for foreign capital in the face of our low savings rate.

Your point on Social Security vs. Medicare is right on the mark. I do make the distinction in my book, but unfortunately had to conflate them for this piece. I should have been more precise, as you have been, in making distinctions. Medicare is the toughest of these issues to address, for the reasons you mention. It is going to grow dramatically as the costs of medicinal care grow and as more and more people draw benefits from the program. Social Security, by contrast, now has a surplus. Under optimistic projections that will last for some time, but under less optimistic ones, from the S.S. Trustees, it will start running deficits at the end of the next decade and bigger ones later on. You are right to point out that it is not now in crisis but a few relatively minor adjustments now can assure that it will remain sound for many decades to come. I also agree that it is very misleading for the government to use the Social Security surplus to disguise the federal deficit. The deficit would be much larger if the borrowings from the Social Security Trust Fund were removed.

To Coberly: Your comment about stealing Granny’s Social Security is wrong and silly. I have never made any statement about drawing money from the Social Security System to pay for the military. That is what is happening now in a way, because the Social Security surplus is being used to pay for other government programs, including the military. If you read the chapter in my book that deals with this, you will see that I oppose that. And you will see that my only goal regarding Social Security is to ensure that it is put on a sustainable basis to ensure that it is available to meet the needs of those who will require its support for many decades to come. Please, if we are to have a good dialogue, refrain from putting words in my mouth that are untrue.

To Indiana: Your point regarding Coberly’s comment is correct. The money paid in is to give people the security of knowing they will have a base level of support in their old age. It is not a vehicle for providing a high return.

To Fustercluck: Good question. There would at first be a weakening of the dollar as people seek to convert them into euros to buy oil. But at some point, the market would stabilize and many of the oil importers would probably convert their euros back to dollars to invest in the U.S., as they would likely continue to do to at least some degree.

To Chairman Mao: I have no argument with your points. Everyone would suffer in the event of a catastrophic attack on the U.S., which is why there is a lot of cooperation among intelligence authorities to avert one. And we would suffer if there was such an attack on our friends and trading partners as well. And any notion of sacrifice for the present war in Iraq went out the window at least two years ago. Some sacrifice might have been possible in late 2003 or early 2004, but not likely now. Much the same happened when the Korean War and the Vietnam War reached a stalemate and victory seemed elusive, if not impossible. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to go back to past wars — and in doing so, I describe in detail just the phenomenon you note.

To Brian: Good point. A catastrophe would cause some flight of foreign capital and domestic capital as well, but the former is more likely than the latter. We are so dependent on foreign capital because the U.S. savings rate is so low that a reduction in its inflow, or a major outflow, would be highly disruptive to our financial markets. I agree that Treasury bonds will be honored, but a lot more federal borrowing would be likely and that would push up interest rates. The Fed would also respond constructively, as it did after 9/11, but if there is a supply side disruption (e.g., a dirty bomb in the port of New York or Long Beach), that would disrupt the inflow of energy and many other goods, pushing prices way up, and the Fed could not contain that.

To MLK: Where did that quote come from? Your point is a good one. Trade does not necessarily avoid wars, nor does the fact that one country has invested in another.

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