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)


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