U.S. net debt hits $4 trillion in 2011—the cumulative toll of a generation of trade deficits
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) recently announced that the U.S. net international investment position (NIIP) was -$4 trillion at year-end in 2011 (see figure, below). The NIIP stood at -$2.5 trillion at year-end 2010. The $1.6 trillion increase in the net debt was largely caused by price changes of -$802 billion (on domestic and foreign holdings of stocks and bonds) and by net financial flows of -$556 billion. Net financial flows were largely explained by financing of the $466 billion U.S. current account deficit in 2011. The current account is the broadest measure of the U.S. trade deficit. While the costs of financing the NIIP were relatively small in 2011, they could rise rapidly if interest rates return to more normal levels in the future.
The United States has been borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars per year for more than a decade to finance its growing trade deficits. However, until 2011, the U.S. NIIP has not declined proportionately, as shown in the figure below, primarily because of gains in the prices of foreign stocks, the decline of the dollar (which made foreign currency holdings more valuable), and frequent accounting revisions (which have found more and more U.S. investments abroad).
Last year, several of those factors moved against the United States as the NIIP declined $1.6 trillion to -$4 trillion. That’s real money. Foreign investors (primarily foreign central banks) held $5.7 trillion in treasuries and other government securities at the end of 2011. The United States paid, on average, about 2.3 percent in interest on all of those securities. These low rates are caused by the still-depressed U.S. economy operating far below potential, and are unlikely to rise unless the U.S. economy begins operating much closer to full-employment. But, if this recovery happens and the NIIP remains roughly as large as it is today, then debt service costs could rise significantly. For example, if the average cost of government debt rises to 4.5 percent, it would add another $124 billion to the U.S. government deficit. If this rise in U.S. borrowing costs, furthermore, was not matched by a rise in global interest rates, then this would actually cause a net decline in U.S. GDP, as income flows out of the country to service debt increased and were not matched by increased inflows that paid U.S. owners of foreign assets.1
The U.S. NIIP represents a potential claim against future national income, and the size of this potential claim is growing dramatically as shown in the figure above. Each year that we allow large trade deficits to continue is another year that adds to this claim on future incomes—yet this actual intergenerational transfer is often ignored while a non-existent intergenerational transfer (that one allegedly caused by rising federal budget deficits) attracts much attention from pundits and economic commentators.2
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. 2012. “Selected Interest Rates (Daily) – H.15: Historical Data.”
U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). 2012. “International Economic Accounts: Balance of Payments.”
U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. 2012. “International Economic Accounts: International Investment Position.”
1. Average rate of return on U.S. government securities in 2011 calculated from data in the current account (BEA 2012a) and the NIIP (BEA 2012b). Return on seven-year treasury securities used for comparison. The average return on seven-year treasuries was 2.16 percent in 2011 (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System 2012). Their average return in the pre-recession period of 2000-2007 was 4.52 percent.
2. Interest payments on government debt owed to U.S. citizens only reallocate income from taxpayers to domestic bondholders. Foreign holdings of U.S. securities represent claims on future income, which are qualitatively different. Interest payments on foreign holdings reduce U.S. GDP, while interest paid to domestic holdings does not. Given the existence of substantial unemployment and the predominance of deficit opponents in Congress, increases in the government debt due to financial outflows could result in further spending cuts, which would cause a further decline in U.S. GDP.