Intro Econ for WAPO: Foreign Holdings of U.S. Debt Depend on the Trade Deficit, not the Budget Deficit

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011 04:21

Many deficit hawks are anxious to exploit nationalistic sentiments and even resort to crude xenophobia to push their agenda of cutting Social Security and Medicare. The starring role in this story goes to the foreign holdings (especially Chinese) of U.S. government debt. The Post did its part by having a chart showing the growth of foreign holdings of "our mountain of debt."

Those who are actually concerned about foreign holdings of U.S. government debt should know that it depends on the trade deficit, not the budget deficit. The trade deficit provides foreigners with the dollars that they use to buy U.S. assets, including government debt. If the United States had large budget deficits, but balanced trade, then foreigners would only be able to buy more government bonds if they sold other U.S. assets, such as the stock and bonds of private companies. Conversely, if the country had a large trade deficit, but a balanced budget, then foreigners would be able to increase their holdings of government bonds by using the dollars they acquired to buy bonds previously issued, or newly issued bonds that replace expiring issues.

This is all simple econ 101. It means that the jingoistic budget hawks are yapping about the wrong deficit. The recipe for correcting the trade deficit (more econ 101) is lowering the value of the dollar against other currencies. This makes our exports cheaper for people living in other countries, causing them to buy more. It makes imports more expensive for people living in the United States, leading them to buy less.

Of course a lower dollar also has important distributional implications. It will have the effect of increasing the relative wages of workers in industries that are subjected to international competition, most importantly manufacturing. It will reduce the relative wages who are largely protected from international competition like doctors, lawyers, and congressional staffers. These distributional implications might explain why the media rarely discusses the over-valued dollar and its impact on the trade deficit and the economy.