At the moment, the U.S. public sector budget deficit is on the way to 5 percent of GDP, the public debt is running well over 108 percent of GDP, and this year’s deficit on trades in goods and services with the rest of the world is currently estimated at more than half-a-trillion dollars, or about 3 percent of GDP.
And here is the upshot: Failure to stem America’s decades-old rise of external deficits has led to a systematic borrowing of world savings to make ends meet. As a result, the country’s net foreign debt position at the end of the second quarter of this year reached a record-high $8.6 trillion, marking an astounding $891 billion increase in net international liabilities from the previous three-month period.
That is the picture of a structurally unbalanced and a very vulnerable U.S. economy facing an unsettled political situation at home and growing security challenges abroad.
Predictably perhaps, foreign creditors are responding with a declining interest in American public debt instruments. During the 12 months to last October, non-resident holdings of U.S. Treasury securities fell by $124.5 billion.
Over that period, China and Japan, the largest investors in U.S. government bonds, trimmed their portfolios by a combined total of $128.8 billion, while running a $400.5 billion trade surplus with the U.S. in the first 10 months of this year.
A very intriguing gesture indeed: China and Japan not only declined to recycle back to the U.S. some of the dollar income from their large trade surpluses, but they also continued to actively sell their Treasury holdings.
There is a twofold message there. First, those sales could be seen as hedges against America’s widely expected interest rate increases. Second, one can also see there a political subtext without falling into an exaggerated reading of unfriendly behavior.
Japan has been increasingly concerned about the forthcoming trade negotiations with the U.S., and could have been venting some of its displeasure by selling Treasury securities while pocketing a $56 billion surplus on its American goods trades.
China is a more complex case because Beijing’s difficult trade negotiations with Washington are bound up with hostilities concerning China’s maritime borders, arms sales to Taiwan, relations with Tibet and divergent views about peace and nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula.