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America’s Bond-Market Blues

BEIJING – The market for United States Treasury securities is one of the world’s largest and most active debt markets, providing investors with a secure stock of value and a reliable income stream, while helping to lower the US government’s debt-servicing costs. But, according to the US Treasury Department, overseas investors sold a record $54.5 billion in long-term US debt in April of this year, with China slashing its holdings by $5.4 billion. This dumping of US government debt by foreign investors heralds the end of an era of cheap financing for the US.

As it stands, the US government holds roughly 40% of its debt through the Federal Reserve and government agencies like the Social Security Trust Fund, while American and foreign investors hold 30% each. Emerging economies – many of which use large trade surpluses to drive GDP growth and supplement their foreign-exchange reserves with the resulting capital inflows – are leading buyers of US debt.

Over the last decade, these countries’ foreign-exchange reserves have swelled from $750 billion to $6.3 trillion – more than 50% of the global total – providing a major source of financing that has effectively suppressed long-term US borrowing costs. With yields on US ten-year bonds falling by 45% annually, on average, from 2000 to 2012, the US was able to finance its debt on exceptionally favorable terms.

But the ongoing depreciation of the US dollar – which has fallen by almost half since the Bretton Woods system collapsed in 1971 – together with the rising volume of US government debt, undermines the purchasing power of investors in US government securities. This diminishes the value of these countries’ foreign-exchange reserves, endangers their fiscal and exchange-rate policies, and undermines their financial security.