My last post was on U.S. net income payments from abroad and how it continues to be in the favour of the United States. The late Wynne Godley had been analyzing this since 1994. In an article titled U.S. Trade Deficits: The Recovery’s Dark Side?, written with William Milberg, he had a section called “Foreign indebtedness and the foreign income paradox” where he said:
So far, the practical consequences of the United States having become “the world’s largest debtor” have not been all that significant… But it would be an error to suppose that, because the net return on net assets has been negligible in the recent past, the same thing will be true in the future…
… Why did the net foreign income flow remain positive for so long after 1988? In order to understand this apparent paradox, it is essential to disaggregate stocks of assets and liabilities and their associated flows, and to distinguish (in particular) between financial assets and direct investments… The reason that net foreign income remained positive for so long can now be understood (at least up to a point) by making a comparison of the flows shown in Figure 3 with the stocks shown in Figure 2. The net inflow that arises from direct investment has been roughly equal to the net outflow on financial assets in recent years, even though the stock of financial liabilities has been about five times as large as the market value of net foreign investments. In other words, the rate of return on net direct investments far exceeded the rate on net financial liabilities
Figure 2 referred to is below:
and Figure 3:
which is what I redrew with updated data in my previous post. But as we saw the net income payments from abroad continues to be positive (!!) even till date but the reason is similar. Foreign direct investment in the United States has risen to $2.8T at the end of 2011 as per Federal Reserve’s Z.1 Flow of Funds while U.S direct investment abroad rose to $4.8T – significantly higher (even as a percent of GDP) than in the mid-90s.
The net direct investment has seen huge returns (both via income and holding gains) and so this killing has brought in good fortunes for the United States. Of course with the whole current account of balance of payments in deficit, the external sector bleeds the circular flow of national income in the United States and contributes to weak demand there.
So a current account deficit is bad for the United States but financing this deficit has been easy for the United States given that the US Dollar is the reserve currency of the world. Why do nations require reserve assets? The late Joseph Gold of the IMF gave a nice description in his book Legal and Institutional Aspects of the International Monetary System: Selected Essays:
What makes the US dollar the reserve currency of the world is difficult to argue. However it cannot be taken for granted that the United States may enjoy this exorbitant privilege given that the Sterling was once the darling of the financial markets and central banks.
After writing the previous post, I came across this interesting paper From World Banker To World Venture Capitalist – U.S. External Adjustment And The Exorbitant Privilege by Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas and Hélène Rey written in 2005.
Their argument is similar – direct investments have made huge returns for the domestic private sector of the United States and gives a good account of the external sector. Here’s a graph of the United States’ net international investment position using data reported by the Federal Reserve’s Z.1 Flow of Funds Accounts as well as the BEA’s International Investment Position:
Why the difference is a topic for another post. I don’t know it yet. Gourinchas and Rey have some answers. The Federal Reserve’s data is till 2011 end and quarterly (and seasonally adjusted) while BEA data is yearly and available till 2010.
So, from the graph above, the United States became a net debtor of the world around 1986. The indebtedness has been rising mainly due to the huge current account deficits the nation manages to run and is partly offset by “holding gains”.
Here’s a graph of the current account deficit plotted with other “financial balances” (since they are related by an identity)
I also discuss this in my post The Un-Godley Private Sector Deficit.
By the way, the U.S. was a creditor of the world when the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates collapsed. Some authors describe this collapse by saying that money has become fiat since 1971 – whatever that means!
Gourinchas and Rey point out – correctly in my opinion:
The previous discussion points to a possible instability, even in an international monetary system that lacks a formal anchor. The relevant reference here is Triffin’s prescient work on the fundamental instability of the Bretton Woods system (see Triffin 1960). Triffin saw that in a world where the fluctuations in gold supply were dictated by the vagaries of discoveries in South Africa or the destabilizing schemes of Soviet Russia, but in any case unable to grow with world demand for liquidity, the demand for the dollar was bound to eventually exceed the gold reserves of the Federal Reserve. This left the door open for a run on the dollar. Interestingly, the current situation can be seen in a similar light: in a world where the United States can supply the international currency at will and invests it in illiquid assets, it still faces a confidence risk. There could be a run on the dollar not because investors would fear an abandonment of the gold parity, as in the 1970s, but because they would fear a plunge in the dollar exchange rate. In other words, Triffin’s analysis does not have to rely on the gold-dollar parity to be relevant. Gold or not, the specter of the Triffin dilemma may still be haunting us!
Gourinchas and Rey’s arguments depend on estimating a tipping point – the point where the net income payments from abroad turn negative. This of course depends on various assumptions but let us look at it.
The gross assets of the United States held abroad and liabilities to foreigners keep changing as the nation is able to increase its liabilities and use it to make direct investments abroad. The reserve currency status has provided the nation with this privilege as central banks around the world are willing to hold dollar-denominated assets. The positive return (as well as revaluation gains from the depreciation of the dollar – when it depreciates) helps reduce the net indebtedness but the current account deficit contributes to increasing it.
The following is the graph of gross assets and liabilities – using the Federal Reserve’s Z.1 Flow of Funds Accounts data and also BEA’s data for the ratio:
So assuming assets held abroad A make a return rA and liabilities L to foreigners lead to payments at an effective interest rate rL income payments from abroad will turn negative whenever
rA · A − rL · L < 0
So A and L are changing due to the current account deficits and revaluation gains on assets and liabilities. Meanwhile, the effective interest rates are themselves changing in time because of various things such as short term interest rates set by the central banks, market conditions, state of the economy etc. Also, if the private sector of the United States makes more direct investments abroad, this will contribute to increase rA (if successful) and the process can go on with net income payments from abroad staying positive for longer. The tipping point is defined by Gourinchas and Rey as the ratio L/A beyond which the the net income payments turn negative. According to their analysis (based purely on historical data), this is 1.30.
If the net income payments from abroad turns negative, international financial markets and central banks may start suspecting the future of the exorbitant privilege according to the authors. Of course, it may be the case that even if it turns negative, the United States’ creditors don’t mind – this has been the case of Australia. The following is from the page 18 of the Australian Bureau of Statistics release Balance of Payments and International Investment Position, Australia, Dec 2011 and in their terminology – which is the same as the IMF’s – it is called “net primary income”)
(Australia’s Q4 2011 GDP was around A$369bn for comparison) and the above graph is quarterly.
So, to conclude the process can continue as long as foreigners do not mind. It shouldn’t be forgotten however that Australian banks had funding issues during the financial crisis and the RBA used its line of credit at the Federal Reserve via fx swaps to prevent a run on Australian banks and it is difficult to design policy without keeping in mind the possibility of walking into uncharted territory.
Once net primary income turns negative, the process can quickly run into unsustainable territory due to the magic of compounding of interest unless the currency depreciates in the favour of the nation helping exports. Else demand has to be curtailed to prevent an explosion but this hurts employment. Other policy options include promotion of exports and asking trading partners to increase domestic demand by fiscal expansion.
Updated: 19 March 2012