US debt purchases have become an important story in the world political economy and a symbol of supposed US powerlessness in the face of a relentless Chinese ascendancy. I think this equation is overdone and instead think that the fact that the Chinese feel obliged to buy US debt as a sign of continued Chinese weakness in their economic structure rather than strength. But it undoubtedly is a complicated debate.
But let us at least get a few facts on the table.
The first is to look at figures for the purchases of US Treasury Securities from an article by Floyd Norris of the NY Times: "For a Change, U.S. Debt Is Staying in the U.S."
The most interesting fact is that Americans themselves are now buying most of this debt. This is not unusual. Most of Japan's debt for example is bought by the Japanese themselves. This amounts to what Hugh Stretton calls "borrowing from ourselves" and therefore removes foreign risk. It also helps to keep interest rates lower.
According to Norris:
Before the financial crisis struck in 2008, neither Americans nor private foreign investors showed much eagerness to finance Washington’s deficits.
In calendar year 2007, the Treasury borrowed a net $237 billion. Of that, 81 percent came from foreign governments, mostly from central banks. Private foreign investors took up the rest, as American companies, banks and individuals reduced their combined Treasury holdings by $13 billion.
In the first six months of this year, the Treasury numbers indicate that foreign governments reduced their holdings of Treasury securities by $10 billion. Not since 2000 — when the United States government was running a surplus and did not need additional funds — have foreign governments been net sellers for a full calendar year.But then again in a globalising financial world, Norris notes also that often it is not exactly clear who the buyers may be:
The figures are estimates by the Treasury and are subject to substantial revision. And they need to be interpreted with caution, because they do not necessarily reflect the ultimate ownership of securities. Holdings of a London-based money manager are attributed to Britain, even though that manager’s clients could live in New York, Hong Kong or Paris.The trend, however, is clear:
Over all, domestic investors purchased more Treasuries than did overseas ones — including foreign governments — in 2009 and again in the first half of this year. Those purchases came as government borrowing rose to pay for bailouts and recession-related spending.
By contrast, during the six years from 2002 — the first year that the United States ran a significant deficit after the years of surpluses — through 2007, three-quarters of the $1.7 trillion in new borrowing came from abroad, with $1 trillion of that coming from foreign governments.
In the two and a half years since the end of 2007, the Treasury has raised twice that amount in new money, $3.5 trillion. More than half of that came from American companies and individuals, double the proportion they contributed in the earlier period.Still more than 46 per cent of debt is held by foreigners, down from 46 per cent in 2008:
Even with those increased domestic purchases, 46 percent of the publicly issued Treasury debt is held overseas. That is down from 49 percent in early 2008, just before the financial crisis began, but it is way above the 31 percent proportion at the end of 2001.The figures also don't include debt bought by the Federal Reserve itself, which involves a notion called quantitative easing, colloquially known as "printing money"
The figures exclude Treasury securities owned by the Federal Reserve or other United States government agencies. As a result, Fed purchases and sales are not counted.