According to Federal Reserve Flow of Fund tables for Q2 2009 (F.107 Rest of the World), non-US residents are moving out of US private debt instruments, favoring US Treasuries despite record-low interest rates.

The “flight to safety” which started with the Crash of 2009 has accelerated as the economic policies of the Obama administration are becoming evident.

The following graph shows a net swing away from selected private debt accounts on the order of USD !.5 trillion, between 2006 and Q2 2009:

Fed Flow of Funds Table F.107, US$ billions (annual flows) to Q2 2009
Fed Flow of Funds Table F.107, US$ billions (annual flows) to Q2 2009

This movement seems to reflect avoidance of three types of risk:

  1. OTC counterparty risk: Flight from security repurchase agreements and interbank lending reflects fear of sloppy trading and settlement practices in over-the-counter markets.
  2. Credit risk: Lack of confidence in the opinions of the traditional credit rating agencies grew even faster, following the Crash of 2008 and combined with the obvious risks of over-leveraging and difficult loan roll-overs due to the credit squeeze, to drive investors out of corporate debt markets.
  3. Inflation risk: Debt with the strongest credit and most efficient settlement markets cannot withstand a fall in value due to an increased rate of inflation. The Obama administration is doing what it can to scare bond investors away by gargantuan “spending is simulus” packages, passed in the dead of night, written by unknown parties, and unread by legislators or even the President.

Foreign flows to Treasuries and Equities at pre-Crash levels

Foreign net flows to US Treasuries, US$ B, to Q2 2009
Foreign net flows to US Treasuries, US$ B, to Q2 2009

After brief and sharp spikes during the last quarter of 2008, foreign flows into US Treasuries have returned about to the levels of 2004, and about twice the levels of 2005-7.

This seems to indicate that the panic of the Crash of 2008 has already subsided, but that there is no where near the amount of money available from the Rest of the World that would be needed to finance the Obama administration’s “spending is stimulus” packages in order to avoid inflation.

The non-debt foreign investment flows are indicated by the accounts “corporate equities”, “mutual funds”, and “foreign direct investments”.

Fed Flow of Funds Table F.107, US$ billions (annual flows) to Q2 2009
Fed Flow of Funds Table F.107, US$ billions (annual flows) to Q2 2009

These equity-type flows suggest that, following the boom years of 2006-2007, the appetite of the Rest of the World for US non-debt investments has returned to levels similar to those of 2004-2005.

In Q2 2009, foreign flows into US equities (annual basis) were $114.6 billion, compared to issues of foreign equities into the US market of $ 148.9 billion.

This means that by Q2 2009, the Rest of the World was, on balance, avidly avoiding new investment into US equities and private debt, while failing to show enthusiasm for financing the vast Obama stimulus packages which are coming down the road.

With these statistics and the historic importance of foreign investment in the US capital markets, one is left scratching one’s head, wondering why the US stock market was rising throughout the first half of 2009?



In a lead op-ed editorial in the Wall Street Journal on July 21, 2020, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke revealed the Fed’s exit strategy with regards to the inflationary effects of the Obama “spending is stimulus” packages and other government measure to contain the current crisis. This article is mandatory reading for anyone interested in the future of the US economy.

Sweeping up worthless currency: Hungary 1946
Sweeping up worthless currency: Hungary 1946

First of all, the Federal Reserve Bank does not foresee inflation as a problem in the immediate future:

As my colleagues and I have stated, however, economic conditions are not likely to warrant tighter monetary policy for an extended period.

This seems to reflect the Carter-era mistake of confusing economic recovery (measured in terms of employment and business activity) with inflation.

Flawed dependence on “managing” depository reserve balances

The most powerful tool that a central bank has to sop up money created by excessive government spending is to increase mandatory, non-interest-bearing reserve requirements of depository institutions. This method has the potential of effectively “sterilizing” money that the government deposits in bank accounts in payment of imprudent Congressional spending, while reducing interest charges on government deficits.

In the United States, however, in response to lobbying of the banking industry, plus regulatory confusion between banking and the securities market, the Federal Reserve’s powers in this area have been dramatically reduced.

  1. Most “bank deposits” are now with money market funds, rather than banks, thereby escaping Federal Reserve control. (See: Money Market Funds will tell us when inflation is here. )
  2. Since the early 1990s, mandatory bank reserves have fallen sharply. In 1990, reserve requirements on large time deposits were eliminated. In 1992, reserve requirements on transaction accounts were reduced. Banks have introduced “sweep accounts” which automatically transfer funds from regular deposit accounts to time deposits or money market funds, both exempt from reserve requirements.
  3. The largest portion of mandatory reserve requirements that now remain are relative to vault cash or purely operational needs of banks, having little effect on the money supply.

For the Federal Reserve to effect changes that would restore its powers to neutralized excess government spending, it would need to go before Congress and obtain such authority. There are four formidable barriers to restoring such powers:

  1. Opposition from the powerful banking lobby.
  2. Opposition from factions seeking to reduce Federal Reserve power in general.
  3. Opposition from undeclared factions favoring “easy money” and currency devaluation as a means of reducing debt burdens on a profligate population.
  4. Opposition from the securities industry and securities regulators who will fight to keep money market funds away from the powers of the Federal Reserve.

Perhaps recognizing the impracticality of having anti-inflationary powers restored by Congress, Chairman Bernanke has focused on using the newly granted powers of paying interest on bank reserve requirements as a means of controlling the money supply.

In other words, Bernanke has effectively taken “The Nuclear Option” off the table as a tool to fight inflation. (See: How the US may avoid inflation: The Nuclear Option. )

Bernanke’s false hope: fiddling interest rates on bank reserves

According to Chairman Bernanke’s WSJ article, the primary inflationary threat comes from excess bank deposit with the Federal Reserve resulting from government actions taken to stimulate the economy in the early stages of the crisis.

These emergency reserve-producing actions consist of such things as the Fed acquiring securities and loans from banks to provide liquidity support in the immediate crisis. Such amounts on the Fed balance sheet are now more than $800 billion above “normal” levels. Of course, these balances must be worked off.

However, most of the Obama “spending is stimulus” measures have not yet reached the stage where funds have been disbursed. As this happens, money will enter the banking system and will be swept into money market funds and time deposits, exempt from Fed banking reserve requirements. Money market funds in particular are a parallel banking system outside of Fed control. With no reserve requirements, while presenting all the features of demand deposits, these funds have the potential to be highly inflationary due to the “multiplier effect”.

Chairman Bernanke’s plan is to use the newly granted power of paying interest on bank reserve requirements as a sort of free market enticement that will attract bank reserves to federal control. This, of course, has an obvious, glaring disadvantage compared to traditional mandatory non-interest bearing reserve deposits — the interest paid by the government will add to the government debt burden at a compound rate.

Increasing the interest rate on federal reserve deposits will contribute to higher interest rates throughout the economy — a typical effect of inflation, while increasing the cost of doing business — a measure to reduce economic activity. In other words, a recipe for stagflation.

Another problem with Bernanke’s formula is that unless the Fed takes decisive, believable actions against inflation, primary buyers of government securities — holders of debt representing the accumulated trade deficit — will shun government securities and move into non-financial assets. (See: How long will it take to work off the US trade deficit?)

Finally, the Bernanke formula seems to ignore the fact that interest rates are not the sole, or even primary determinant of money flows in an inflationary environment. In an open, global economy, funds will flow out of the United States to economies with stronger currencies.

Of course, before we get to the point that inflation begins to kick in, management of the Federal Reserve may change — for better or worse. Furthermore, with the popularity of the Obama administration teetering over reactions to the “spending is stimulus”, “cap and trade”, and Obamacare packages, there is no assurance that current policies, for better or worse, will persist.

These are trying times.


The rest of the world holds $16.8 trillion in US financial assets, according to Federal Reserve release Z.1, as of Q1 2009.

Foreign trade based on dollars
Foreign trade based on dollars

Most of US financial assets held by foreigners are the result of the fact that the United States has been importing more from the rest of the world since 1971 than it has been exporting and that the sellers of foreign goods have been happy to receive US dollars in payment.

US financial assets held by the rest of the world consist mostly of debt instruments denominated in US dollars.

About $5.6 trillion is made up of direct investments and miscellaneous assets like real estate. Another $1.6 trillion is in US traded equities. The balance, about $9.6 trillion, is dollar-denominated debt owed to non-resident holders.

Although this “foreign debt” poses no real threat to US citizens, since it is denominated in US dollars, many people, including economists who should know better, think otherwise.

So, how long would it take to “work off” this debt?

What would happen if foreign exporters suddenly refused payment in dollars?

As long as the rest of the world accepts dollars in payment for exports, while the US continues to import more than it exports, the US trade deficit will continue to grow.

The decline in the value of the US dollar is nothing new. It has been going on for over half of century, since President Roosevelt rescinded convertibility into gold. The decline accelerated with President Nixon’s complete abandonment of the gold standard. Current variations in the value of dollar are hardly a blip in the long term trend. (Of course, other fiat currencies have also been declining in value.)

The US dollar has  declined since FDR abandoned the gold standard
The US dollar has declined since FDR abandoned the gold standard

Let’s pretend, however, that foreign exporters suddenly decide that they will no longer accept dollars in payment for their goods and rush to get rid of their holdings of US financial assets.

Here is what would probably happen:

  • The value of the dollar against other currencies would plunge.
  • US export goods would become incredibly cheap in terms of foreign currency. This would tempt foreign holders of US dollar debt to trade it for cash and buy export goods.
  • By dumping dollar bonds to buy export goods, interest rates on US bonds would soar as prices fell. This would tempt some foreign holders not to sell.
  • American importers, unable to pay in dollars as in the past, would need to borrow foreign currencies to import essentials like oil. Imports of “non-essentials”, like plastic dolls from China, would drop. Oil prices would rise. Americans would use their cars less.
  • Foreigners holding dollar assets would find that the only way to get rid of the now-unwanted dollars would be to use them to buy non-financial assets from Americans (such as real estate and export goods). Dollars are legal tender in the US. There is plenty of US real estate and other non-financial assets to absorb the accumulated trade deficit.
  • US exports in Q1 2009 were running at an annual rate of $1.5 trillion. At this rate, it would take a little over six years to “work off” the dollar-denominated financial debt due foreigners by selling them US goods and services. Of course, if the rest of the world was really anxious to get rid of their dollar debt, they could buy US export goods at a faster rate, while rushing to buy US real estate and making direct investments in US businesses (which by now would be humming along quite nicely to supply the booming export market.)
  • Faced with soaring prices of oil and the inability to pay in dollars, the US would suddenly forget the “green dream” of wind farms and bio-energy and rush to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, while building nuclear plants in every state.
  • As foreigners got rid of US financial assets, a major source of credit card financing would dry up. Americans, by necessity, would become thrifty.
  • As a major source of easy credit disappears, corporations would be forced to turn to old-fashioned methods of equity financing. Stock buybacks would be a thing of the past. Stock prices would fall — effected by rising interest rates.
  • Foreign exporters, faced with falling demand from the United States that now lacks the currency with which to pay for their products, would have to lay off workers, while employment picks up in the United States in the export sectors. Foreign governments might even seek to boost the dollar.

In other words, if the rest of the world were suddenly to turn against the dollar, the trade deficit might be eliminated in a few years, causing a boom in industrial production and real estate in the US, radical changes in economic behavior, and less employment in former exporters to the US.

What could cause this to happen?

The easiest way to destroy the credibility of the US dollar would be to jack up government spending to the point of bringing on hyper-inflation. In other words: just follow the current policies of the Obama administration.

However, there are countervailing forces that make the above scenario unlikely:

US Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota)
US Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota)
  • The US is still a representative democracy: Despite the bizarre seating of the not-so-funny comedian Al Franken as a US Senator and the presence of representatives of “safe districts” like Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank, the public can still be counted to turn away from its leaders, once the “misery index” gets above 15%. Since unemployment is expected to surpass 10% soon, while even modest recovery should send inflation above 5%, the current government is likely to be voted out of office once the public finally understands that Obama promises have been false. Just as in the days of Jimmy Carter, a return to conservative government will restore confidence in the dollar, as steps are taken to curb inflation and reverse Obama policies.
  • A cheap dollar will boost American exports: As foreign factories cut back production to meet declining US demand, there will be pressure to accept payment in dollars, as before. After all, many countries have dollar balances, while balances in other currencies are far smaller. Because the value of the dollar has fallen, the value of goods that can be purchased with a dollar will have increased. As foreign unemployment rises, the urge to return to the dollar will also increase. A stronger dollar means not only more sales for foreign factories, but less competition from US exporters.

This “thought experiment” shows that fears of America’s children and grandchildren having to work for years to pay off debt to foreigners are unfounded.

The trade deficit would quickly disappear in an extreme inflationary environment. The system has self-correcting mechanisms.

Illustrations: Wikimedia Commons


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