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US Government Debt Crisis Hovers in the Background, Part 1

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Unless the underlying debt levels and budget deficits are dealt with, the ability of the US to finance itself will deteriorate.

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These reserves arose from dollars received from exports and foreign investment that had to be exchanged into local currency. In order to avoid increases in the value of the currency that would affect the competitive position of their exporters, the exporting nations invested the reserves in dollar-denominated investment, primarily US Treasury bonds and other high quality securities. By the middle 2000s, foreign buyers were purchasing around 50% of US government bonds.

During this period, emerging countries, such as China fuelled American growth, both supplying cheap goods and providing cheap funding to finance the purchase of these goods. It was a mutually convenient addiction – China financed customers creating demand for exports and America received the money to buy cheap Chinese goods. Asked whether America hanged itself with an Asian rope, a Chinese official told a reporter: "No. It drowned itself in Asian liquidity."

Following the global financial crisis, foreign purchases have decreased to around 30% of new issuance. Around 70% of US government bonds (US$ 0.9 trillion) have been purchased by the Federal Reserve, as part of successive rounds of quantitative easing.

Foreign Alms

Historically, America has been able to run large budget and balance of payments deficits because it had no problems finding investors in US treasury securities. The unquestioned credit quality of the US, the unparalleled size and liquidity of its government bond market ensured investor support. Given its reserve currency and safe haven status, US dollars and US government bonds remained a cornerstone of investment portfolios.

The US dollar's share of world trade and investment is extraordinary and out of proportion to its economic role. The dollar remains the principal currency for invoicing and settling trade. Eighty-five percent of foreign exchange transactions involve the dollar. Fifty percent of stock of international securities is denominated in US dollars. Central banks hold 60% of their foreign exchange reserves in dollars. All this is despite the fact that the US's share of global exports is only 13% and foreign direct investment is 20%.

The US financing strategy is based on the "balance of financial terror."

China, the major investor in US government bond investors, finds itself in the position that John Maynard Keynes identified: "Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed." Over recent years, Chinese concerns about the US debt position has become increasingly shrill.

In 2010, Yu Yongding, a former adviser to China's central bank, mused: "I do not think U.S. Treasuries are safe in the medium-and long-run…Only God knows how much value that China has stored in the U.S. government securities will be left in the future when China needs to run down its reserves." In 2011, a Chinese government spokesperson could only "hope the US government will earnestly adopt responsible policies to strengthen international market confidence, and to respect and protect the interests of investors." In 2010, US Treasury Secretary told a gathering of Chinese students that US government bonds were "safe" investments, eliciting derisive laughter.

But China has America right where America wants China!

Existing investors, like China, must continue to purchase US dollars and government bonds to avoid a precipitous drop in the value of existing investments. This allows America time to correct its deteriorating public finances and reduce its borrowing requirements. It also allows increases in domestic savings to reduce reliance on foreign investors. The US Federal Reserve remains a buyer of last resort, although the long term consequences of this "printing money" strategy remains uncertain.

For the moment, this tenuous strategy appears to be holding. Demand for Treasury securities from investors and other governments has continued. Domestic investment, primarily from banks who are not lending but parking cash in government securities, has been strong. US government rates remain low. The government's average interest rate on new borrowing is around 1%, with one-month Treasury bills paying less than 0.10% per annum. This has allowed the US to keep its interest bill manageable despite increases in debt levels.

In effect, the US requires artificially low interest rates to able to service its debt. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee that the US faces a debt crisis: "It's not something that is 10 years away. It affects the markets currently…It is possible that the bond market will become worried about the sustainability [of deficits over $1 trillion] and we may find ourselves facing higher interest rates even today."

The current position is not sustainable in the longer term. Unless the underlying debt levels and budget deficits are dealt with, the ability of the US to finance itself will deteriorate. The US treasury must issue large amounts of debt almost continuously – weekly auctions regularly clock in at $50-70 billion unimaginable a few years ago. America's ability to finances its need may not continue. As English writer Aldous Huxley observed: "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."

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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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