“The Overstretch Myth,” by David H Levey and Stuard S. Brown, Foreign Affairs, http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20050301facomment84201/david-h-levey-stuart-s-brown/the-overstretch-myth.html, March/April 2005 (from Free Republic).
The article is so well written that few comments are possible
Summary: The United States’ current account deficit and foreign debt are not dire threats to its global position, as would-be Cassandras warn. U.S. power is firmly grounded on economic superiority and financial stability that will not end soon.
Despite the persistence and pervasiveness of this doomsday prophecy, U.S. hegemony is in reality solidly grounded: it rests on an economy that is continually extending its lead in the innovation and application of new technology, ensuring its continued appeal for foreign central banks and private investors. The dollar’s role as the global monetary standard is not threatened, and the risk to U.S. financial stability posed by large foreign liabilities has been exaggerated. To be sure, the economy will at some point have to adjust to a decline in the dollar and a rise in interest rates. But these trends will at worst slow the growth of U.S. consumers’ standard of living, not undermine the United States’ role as global pacesetter. If anything, the world’s appetite for U.S. assets bolsters U.S. predominance rather than undermines it.
The statistic at the center of the foreign debt debate is the net international investment position (NIIP), the value of foreign assets owned by U.S. residents minus the value of U.S. assets owned by nonresidents. Until 1989, the United States was a creditor to the rest of the world; the NIIP peaked at almost 13 percent of GDP in 1980. But chronic current account deficits ever since have given the United States the largest net liabilities in world history. Since foreign claims on the United States ($10.5 trillion) exceed U.S. claims abroad ($7.9 trillion), the NIIP is now negative: -$2.6 trillion at the start of 2004, or -24 percent of GDP.
Note that many savings vehicles, including corporate savings plans and home ownership, are excluded from domestic savings:
An alternative perspective takes as its point of departure the accounting identity that equates the current account deficit with the difference between total investment in the United States and U.S. domestic saving. Low domestic saving, according to this view, is to blame for deficits. The fear is that a sudden reluctance by foreigners to continue exporting their excess savings to the United States would choke off the investment needed to sustain economic growth, sending the U.S. economy into crisis.
This explanation becomes less alarming, however, when you consider that both savings and investment are seriously undervalued in U.S. economic accounts. Capital gains on equities, 401(k) plans, and home values are excluded from measurements of personal saving; when they are added, total U.S. domestic saving is around 20 percent of GDP–about the same rate as in other developed economies. The national account also excludes “intangible” investment: spending on knowledge-creating activities such as on-the-job training, new-product development and testing, design and blueprint experimentation, and managerial time spent on workplace organization. Economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research estimate that intangible investment grew rapidly during the 1990s and is now at least as large as physical investment in plant and equipment: more than $1 trillion per year, or 10 percent of GDP. Consequently, the size and growth rate of the U.S. economy have been seriously underestimated. In fact, when tangible and intangible investment are both counted, the apparent (and much decried) increase in consumer spending as a share of GDP turns out to be a statistical artifact.
The GreaterEast Asian states have a strong interest in maintaining the current system:
In a series of recent papers, economists Michael Dooley, David Folkerts-Landau, and Peter Garber maintain that Asian governments–pursuing a “mercantilist” development strategy of undervalued exchange rates to support export-led growth–must continue to finance U.S. imports of their manufactured goods, since the United States is their largest market and a major source of inward direct investment. Only a fundamental transformation in Asia’s growth strategy could undermine this mutually advantageous interdependence–an unlikely prospect at least until China absorbs the 300 million peasants expected to move into its industrial and service sectors over the next generation. Even the widely anticipated loosening of China’s exchange-rate peg would not alter the imperatives of this overriding structural transformation. Ronald McKinnon of Stanford argues that Asian governments will continue to prevent their currencies from depreciating too much in order to maintain competitiveness, avoid imposing capital losses on domestic holders of dollar assets, and reduce the risk of an economic slowdown that could lead to a deflationary spiral. According to both theories, there should be no breakdown of the current dollar-based regime.
The consequences of an American recession are to be feared by Brussels and Tokyo (not to mention Bejing and New Delhi!) more than Washington:
But even if such a sharp break occurs–which is less likely than a gradual adjustment of exchange rates and interest rates–market-based adjustments will mitigate the consequences. Responding to a relative price decline in U.S. assets and likely Federal Reserve action to raise interest rates, U.S. investors (arguably accompanied by bargain-hunting foreign investors) would repatriate some of their $4 trillion in foreign holdings in order to buy (now undervalued) assets, tempering the price decline for domestic stocks and bonds. A significant repatriation of funds would thus slow the pace of the dollar decline and the rise in rates. The ensuing recession, combined with the cheaper dollar, would eventually combine to improve the trade balance. Although the period of global rebalancing would be painful for U.S. consumers and workers, it would be even harder on the European and Japanese economies, with their propensity for deflation and stagnation. Such a transitory adjustment would be unpleasant, but it would not undermine the economic foundations of U.S. hegemony.
While Europe fades, and dies away, the Second American Century looks bright
For foreign central banks (as well as commercial financial institutions), U.S. Treasury bonds, government-supported agency bonds, and deposits in highly rated banks will remain, for the foreseeable future, the chief sources of liquid reserve assets. Many analysts have pointed to the euro as a threat to the dollar’s status as the world’s central reserve currency. But the continuing strength of the U.S. economy relative to the European Union’s and the structure of European capital markets make such a prospect highly unlikely. On the basis of likely demographic and productivity growth differentials, Adam Posen of the Institute for International Economics estimates that the U.S. economy will be at least 20 percent larger than that of the EU in 2020. The United States will maintain its 22 percent share of world output, but Europe’s share will, in the absence of serious structural reforms, shrink by 3 to 5 percent. Moreover, European government bond markets, although larger than the U.S. Treasury market, are divided among five large countries and a host of smaller ones, greatly reducing liquidity, and European corporate bond and equity markets are smaller than their U.S. counterparts. With Asian capital markets still in their infancy, it will be a very long time before the pre-eminence of the dollar and U.S. capital markets is challenged
Final thoughts: the greatest threat to American hegemony are threats to Natural Liberty
At the peak of its global power the United Kingdom was a net creditor, but as it entered the twentieth century, it started losing its economic dominance to Germany and the United States. In contrast, the United States is a large net debtor. But in its case, no plausible challenger to its economic leadership exists, and its share of the global economy will not decline. Focusing exclusively on the NIIP obscures the United States’ institutional, technological, and demographic advantages. Such advantages are further bolstered by the underlying complementarities between the U.S. economy and the economies of the developing world–especially those in Asia. The United States continues to reap major gains from what Charles de Gaulle called its “exorbitant privilege,” its unique role in providing global liquidity by running chronic external imbalances. The resulting inflow of productivity-enhancing capital has strengthened its underlying economic position. Only one development could upset this optimistic prognosis: an end to the technological dynamism, openness to trade, and flexibility that have powered the U.S. economy. The biggest threat to U.S. hegemony, accordingly, stems not from the sentiments of foreign investors, but from protectionism and isolationism at home.
Update: Tom Barnett agrees
The Chinese leadership also likes to point out that while reserve holdings have tripled since 2001 (amazing, given all our war-mongering, yes?), the price of oil has doubled, and China is importing oil in unprecedented amounts.
Hmmmm. Security, money, energy. Sounds like a complex relationship.