Brad Setser

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Bonus graph

by Brad Setser

A quick chart showing how my estimates (from work I have done with Arpana Pandey of the CFR) for official holdings of Treasuries and Agencies compares with the FRBNY custodial holdings and the data that the US reports on the TIC website.

frbny-custodial-data-july-09-3

My estimates match those of the TIC in June of every year — when the data is revised. That is by design. All I am doing is using data on flows through the UK and Hong Kong to smooth out the revisions over the course of the year, and thus to avoid the sudden jumps in the official data.

frbny-custodial-data-july-09-41

China, new financial superpower …

by Brad Setser

One of the biggest economic and political stories of this decade has been China’s emergence as the world’s biggest creditor country. At least in a ‘flow” sense. China’s current account surplus is now the world’s largest – and its government easily tops a “reserve and sovereign wealth fund” growth league table. The growth in China’s foreign assets at the peak of the oil boom – back when oil was well above $100 a barrel – topped the growth in the foreign assets of all the oil-exporting governments. Things have tamed down a bit – but China still is adding more to its reserves than anyone else.

Yet China is in a lot of ways an unusual creditor, for three reasons:

One, China is still a very poor country. It isn’t obvious why it makes sense for China to be financing other countries’ development rather than its own. That I suspect is part of the reason why China’s government seems so concerned about the risk of losses on its foreign assets.

Two, almost all outflows from China come from China’s government. Private investors generally have wanted to move money into China at China’s current exchange rate. The large role of the state in managing China’s capital outflows differentiates China from many leading creditor countries, and especially the US and the UK. Of course, the US government organized large loans to help Europe reconstruct in the 1940s and early 1950s, and thus the US government played a key role recycling the United States current account surplus during this period. But later in the 1950s and in the 1960s, the capital outflows that offset the United States current account surplus (and reserve-related inflows) largely came from private US individuals and firms. And back in the nineteenth century, private British investors were the main financiers of places like Argentina, Australia and the United States. We now live in a market-based global financial system where the biggest single actor is a state.

Three, unlike many past creditors, China doesn’t lend to the world in its own currency. It rather lends in the currencies of the “borrowing” countries – whether the US dollar, the euro, the British pound or the Australian dollar. That too is a change from historical norms. Many creditor countries have wanted debtors to borrow in the currency of the creditor country. To be sure, that didn’t always work out: it makes outright default more likely (ask those who lent to Latin American countries back in the twentieth century … ). But it did offer creditors a measure of protection against depreciation of the debtor’s currency.

This system was basically stable for the past few years – though not with out its tensions. Now though there are growing voices calling for change.

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Still growing …

by Brad Setser

The Fed’s custodial holdings of Treasuries just topped $2 trillion. Custodial holdings of Treasuries rose by $25 billion in July. The overall pace of growth in the Fed’s custodial holdings did slow a bit in July, as some of the rise in Treasuries was offset by a fall in Agency holdings. But in a world where the US trade deficit is running at about $30 billion a month, a $15 billion monthly increase in the Fed’s custodial holdings is significant.

I understand why the Treasury market is so focused on Chinese demand — China is a the largest player in the market, and a major shift in Chinese demand would almost certainly have an impact. Right now, the market is obsessing over the low level of indirect bids in last week’s 2 year auction. At the same time, concern that central banks are abandoning Treasuries should be muted so long as the rise in the Fed’s custodial holdings of Treasuries is running far above the US trade deficit. Barring a huge increase in the trade deficit after May, that is certainly will be case over the last three months of data.

frbny-custodial-data-july-09-1

It is also true on a 12m basis.

frbny-custodial-data-july-09-2

The Fed’s custodial holdings may exaggerate central bank purchases a bit, as central banks sought safety in the crisis and moved funds out of private accounts. But so long as the custodial holdings of Treasuries are rising so rapidly, it is a little hard to argue that central bank reserve managers aren’t willing to hold dollars.

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The (almost) dollar crisis of 2007 …

by Brad Setser

It is now rather common to argue that those economists who anticipated the crisis anticipated the wrong crisis – a dollar crisis, not a banking crisis. Robin Harding of the FT writes:

“If economists try to predict crises they will get it wrong, and that will reduce their credibility when they try to warn of risks. It was in their warnings that economists failed: plenty talked of ‘global imbalances’ or ‘excessive credit growth’; few followed that through to the proximate sources of danger in the financial system, and then forcibly argued for something to be done about it.”

Free exchange made a similar point last week.

“It’s interesting that he [Krugman] mentions Nouriel Roubini, who is one of several international economists who famously saw some sort of crisis on the horizon but who very much erred in guessing the precipitating factor. I think international macroeconomists have been looking for a dollar crisis for quite some time, and they believed that such a crisis would bring on the meltdown. Instead, the meltdown occurred for other reasons and paradoxically reinforced the position of the dollar (and, for the moment, many of the structural imbalances that have troubled international economists).”

Actually, the crisis has — at least temporarily — reduced those structural imbalances. The US trade deficit is much smaller now than before. And, be honest, the criticism directed at Dr. Roubini should have been directed at me: after 2005, the locus of Nouriel’s concerns shifted to the housing market and the financial sector, while I continued to focus on the risks associated directly with the US external deficit. But it is hard to argue against the conclusion that the current crisis stems, fundamentally, from the collapse in the financial sector’s ability to intermediate the US household deficit – not a collapse in the rest of the world’s willingness to accumulate dollars. The chain of risk intermediation broke down in New York and London before it broke down in Beijing, Moscow or Riyadh.

At the same time, I also think the argument that warnings about “imbalances” (meaning the US trade deficit) were wrong neglects one important thing: there was something of a balance of payments crisis in 2007, although it took a very unusual form. When US growth slowed and global growth did not, private investors (limited) willingness to finance the US deficit disappeared. Consider the following graph, which plots (net) private demand for US long-term financial assets (it is based on the TIC data, but I have adjusted the TIC data for “hidden” official inflows that show up in the Treasury’s annual survey of foreign portfolio investment) against the US trade deficit.

almost-a-dollar-crisis-4

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Doesn’t a smaller (external) deficit mean less dependence on (external) creditors, including China?

by Brad Setser

There is a common argument that the US depends more on China now than before because the US needs to issue so many Treasury bonds to finance its fiscal deficit.

I disagree, for two reasons:

First, the trade deficit is down significantly, so the amount that the US needs to borrow from the rest of the world has fallen. That means less dependence on external creditors. The fiscal deficit — obviously — is much bigger now than it was a year ago. But inflows from the rest of the world can finance a private sector deficit as well as a public sector deficit. Private borrowing in the US is way down – and that has pulled total US borrowing from the rest of the world down even as the fiscal deficit rose. After crises in Asia in the 1990s and in Eastern Europe and the US in this decade, there should be little doubt that external deficits that have their roots in excessive private borrowing are also risky.

In my view, the US was more dependent on central banks in general and China in particular for financing back in 2006, 2007 and the first part of 2008 — when the US trade deficit was larger than it is now and emerging market reserve growth was higher than it is now.

more-vulnerable-question-reserves-v-trade

Second, the majority of the fiscal deficit isn’t being financed by foreign central banks. That’s a key change. Indeed, the rise in the Treasury’s issuance of long-term debt has come even as central bank demand for long-term debt has fallen. That key fact gets lost amid the general sense that the US must be relying more on China now than in the past because the US government is borrowing more.

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The problem with relying on the dollar to produce a real appreciation in China …

by Brad Setser

Is now rather obvious. The dollar goes down as well as up.

Last fall, demand for dollars rose — in part because Americans pulled funds out of the rest of the world faster than foreigners pulled funds out of the US. The dollar soared. As the crisis abated though, demand for US financial assets fell and Americans regained their appetite for the world’s financial assets. Not surprising, over the last few months, the dollar has depreciated.

And since — at least for now — China’s currency is tightly pegged to the dollar, the RMB also has depreciated. Fairly significantly.

The real exchange rate index produced by the BIS suggests that, in real terms, the RMB is back where it was last June. That is when China more or less gave up on its policy of letting the RMB appreciate against the dollar and went back to something that looks like a simple dollar peg.

china-rer-11

Does the RMB’s recent depreciation matter? I think so.

To start, China looks to be leading the world out of the current slump. That normally would result in an appreciating, not a depreciating, currency.

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And now, the rest of the story: long-term portfolio flows have fallen by more than the trade deficit

by Brad Setser

The goods news: the US trade deficit has shrunk. On a rolling 12m basis the trade deficit is down to around $500 billion, and the data from the last few months suggests that it should fall even further.

The bad news: the US trade deficit hasn’t shrunk by as much as foreign demand for US long-term assets.

trade-deficit-v-portfolio-flows-5

My graph only showed inward portfolio flows. That isn’t the entire balance balance of payments. But inward and outward FDI flows tend to offset each other. And in general Americans have been adding to their foreign portfolio, not reducing their foreign holdings. That means the (remaining) deficit is increasingly financed by short-term flows, which isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world.

All this is pretty clear if you look at the details of the last TIC data release (already covered in depth by Rachel). Over the last three months, private investors reduced their US holdings by over $100 billion (line 31). That total was offset by the repayment of the Fed’s swap lines — but the long-term flow picture isn’t great. Net portfolio inflows over the last 12ms totaled $188 billion (line 19). After adjusting for repayment of ABS, that total falls to zero (lines 20 and 21).

As the following graph shows, net private demand for long-term US assets — that is gross long-term private portfolio inflows net of US portfolio outflows — started to disappear in late 2006, and then took another down leg after the subprime crisis broke in August 2007. And over the last 9 months, official demand for US long-term bonds also disappeared — as reserve growth slowed (until recently) and central banks moved in mass toward short-term treasury bills.

trade-deficit-v-portfolio-flows-11

The split between official and private flows in the chart reflects my adjustments to the TIC data – but my adjustments basically just make the TIC data match the US survey data and the revised BEA data on official flows.* My adjustments change the official/ private split, but not the total.

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Don’t ignore the adjustment that has taken place; the US trade deficit is half its size this time last year …

by Brad Setser

Most reporting on the May trade data tried to fit it into the “green shoots” meta-narrative, thanks to the small uptick in exports. Never mind that total exports were about equal to their level in March even after the May uptick– and that about half the uptick between May and April came from a sharp rise in petroleum exports (see Exhibit 9). I have a hard time seeing how that signals a sustained uptick in US activity.

On a y/y basis, the fall in exports does seem to have stabilized. Moreover, the y/y fall in exports seems to have stabilized with a bit before the fall in imports stabilized, and the percentage fall in non-oil imports (around 25% y/y) is a bit larger than the percentage fall in non-oil exports (around 20% y/y).

trade-may-09-12

But y/y changes don’t tell us all that much. Levels are what count.

Real (goods) exports and especially imports have been essentially flat for the last three months or so. The Los Angeles and Long Beach port data suggests nothing much changed in June. That is progress. Exports, imports and indeed activity were all in free fall for a while in q4 and q1. But the trade data – backward looking data, to be sure – still fits comfortably with Jan Hatzius’ argument that final demand is going sidewise more than recovering.

trade-may-09-2

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Chinese Handcuffs? No, Chinese trade deficit

by Mark Dow

This is Mark Dow. Brad is away.

China has become the obsession that Japan was back in the 80s. And rightly so. It is a huge place, with a robust secular growth force underlying it (remember the conditional convergence growth hypothesis?). Rumors of China doing this or that have become a daily staple of the market.

Lately, the discussion has focused a lot on their willingness to continue to buy US treasuries. I know Brad does a lot of good work on this issue in this space. Much less attention, it seems to me, has been placed on their need to buy more Treasuries.

It has long been my contention that the large global imbalances were mostly a function of risk appetite and financial innovation leading to an explosion of the money multipliers all over the world—especially in countries with a greater degree of financial sophistication and/or capital account openness (I almost said promiscuity).

Here in the US, we were the leaders. It had less to do with Greenspan, less to do with Congress, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, and more to do with the private sector taking excessive financial risk. After all, it was a global phenomenon. Over the course of history this tends to happen any time there is a period of macroeconomic stability coupled with the observation that others around us are making money. People tend to pile on and take things too far. It is in our very nature. (I would recommend Akerlof and Shiller’s “Animal Spirits”, or Kindleberger’s “Manias, Panics, and Crashes” for anyone interested in these behavioral phenomena).

In this case, it led to a huge trade imbalance with China. Credit allowed us to consume beyond our means, and demand spilled out over our borders into China. The Chinese obliged and became huge holders of Treasuries. While it is true that the Chinese exchange rate regime was an amplifier of this story, I think it was more of a passenger than a driver. The driver was credit.

Today the credit bubble is popping (whence my view on inflation and the money multiplier). At the same time the Chinese are trying to prop up aggregate demand by controlling the only thing they can: domestic demand. This to me means the imbalances are in the process of going away. In fact, I have long said (and have made a few bets with friends) that the Chinese trade balance will likely be in deficit by the end of this year. This means that the need for China to buy our treasuries will have largely gone away. I realize this may be too aggressive a contention over this time frame, but I am convinced the basic story is right. And to my mind’s eye there isn’t an exchange rate regime or Renminbi level that can stop this from happening.

On Monday I posted a chart of the US trade balance, and we saw in it the dramatic swing that took hold as soon as the credit bubble popped. Overnight, the Chinese trade balance figures came out. Have a look at the chart below. Read more »

“A more balanced economy might allow the world to live with a less perfect financial system”

by Brad Setser

Mike Dooley and Peter Garber argue (at VoxEU) that the recent crisis has nothing to do with “Bretton Woods 2” — an international monetary system where reserve growth in the “periphery” financed deficits in the center. They write:

“the crisis was caused by ineffective supervision and regulation of financial markets in the US and other industrial countries …. [NOT BY] ….”current account imbalances, particularly by net flows of savings from emerging markets to the US,” “easy monetary policy in the US” or “financial innovation. … the idea that fraud and reckless lending flourished because US financial markets were unable to honestly and efficiently intermediate a net flow of foreign savings equal to about 5% of GDP, while having no problem with intermediating much larger flows of domestic savings, is astonishing to us.” *

The authors of Box 1.4 of the IMF’s Spring 2009 World Economic Outlook also attribute the current crisis to risk management failures in large financial institutions and weaknesses in the regulation and supervision of such institutions.** The role of imbalances are downplayed, as a “disorderly exit from the dollar has not yet been part of the crisis narrative.”

The last point is hard to refute: the dollar rallied during the most intense phase of the crisis.*** Reserve growth stopped, but that was because private money moved out of the emerging world and into the dollar, yen and swiss franc after the crisis – not because the world’s central banks lost confidence in the dollar. The proximate cause of the most recent phase of the crisis was a collapse in private financial intermediation, not a collapse in key central banks’ willingness to finance US.

But the absence of the kind of dollar collapse that many postulated might bring Bretton Woods 2 to an end doesn’t imply – in my view – that there was no connection between a global system marked by large inflows from the emerging world and the current crisis. The key issue is whether or not the large net flow from the emerging world to the US and Europe created conditions that facilitated, directly or indirectly, the failure of private risk management.

Three potential connections come to mind:

A rise in offshore dollar deposits by central banks provided some of the financing for the growth in banks’ dollar balance sheets. Central bank inflows into offshore money market funds had a similar impact.

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