Cassandras warn that the foreign appetite for US debt is satiated and wonder who is going to buy US Treasuries when the Federal Reserve stops. Not only are US officials not concerned about this, but the Department of Treasury continues its campaign to discourage foreign central banks from buying so many Treasuries.
Foreign official purchases of Treasuries are usually the result of intervention in the foreign exchange market. The rules of engagement as they have evolved from the G7, the G20 and IMF over past decade are to let market forces drive foreign exchange prices. Of course, the orthodoxy prior to this, and the rules under which the high income economies boomed, was the exact opposite.
In any event, the US Congress requires US Treasury Department to make semi-annual reports on the international economic policies and exchange rate practices of the major US trading partners. It did so yesterday, April 15. As part of the report, it must look at whether these trading partners are manipulating their currencies to prevent an adjustment on the balance of payments or to seek an unfair trade advantage. The fact that the US has not cited any country for two decades has, in some sense, makes the threshold more significant.
On the other hand, the currency policy of many countries is more nuanced. It is not just intervention, but a certain purpose of the intervention that is required to conclude manipulation. Let's concede for the sake of the argument that China did not just tolerate, but actually played an active role in the yuan's recent weakness. It may not meet the threshold of manipulation of the law if it did so to wash out what it regarded as speculative positioning.
The Treasury report warns that it would "raise particularly serious concerns" if the recent yuan weakness was an indication that Chinese officials would resist further currency appreciation. However, the report still assumes that if left to market forces, the yuan would strengthen. This assumption is not as obvious as it once was, especially given the sharp decline in its external surplus and the compounded effect of persistent inflation than the US, Europe and Japan.
Though stopping shy of labeling a country a manipulator, which would require bilateral negotiations, the US Treasury still uses the report to express its desires. It calls on China to let markets play a bigger role and take advantage of the opportunity created by widening the band (to 2% from 1% from daily fix). The US does not force China to intervene and buy US Treasuries and it wishes it did not.
The February TIC data show that China's Treasury holdings fell by $2.7 bln, bringing the three-month decline to almost $34 bln. Still at $1.27 trillion, China's Treasury holdings remain the largest in the world. Japan comes in a close second with $1.21 trillion. Japan's holdings increased by $9 bln and over the past three months; they have risen by about $25 bln. Japan has not intervened in the foreign exchange market for a few years (2011), but over the past year, its Treasury holdings have risen by about $100 bln. The US Treasury urges Japan to focus on structural reforms that boost the growth potential and not rely on monetary to offset the fiscal adjustment.
Over the past three months, South Korea's Treasury holdings have increased by about $10 bln. The US Treasury report notes that South Korea's current account surplus in 2013 was 6.1% of GDP, the largest in 14 years. It cautions the country that intervention (resulting in US Treasury purchases) should only take place under "exceptional circumstances of disorderly markets" and increase the transparency of the interventions.
Germany did not go unscathed. It says Germany's reluctance to boost domestic demand retards the adjustment process. The US Treasury notes that German domestic demand has only grown faster than GDP in three times in the past ten years. Germany's current account surplus remains well above 7% of GDP. The adjustment that has taken place is largely in the periphery through higher savings, which compresses demand.
The G20 have agreed on working toward readdressing global imbalances. The Treasury's report argues that there are two reasons why a larger adjustment has not taken place. First, surplus countries have not increased domestic demand sufficiently. Second, more progress is needed to more fully embrace market-determined exchange rates, refrain from currency intervention and stop excessive reserve accumulation.
Over the course of February, non-residents' Treasury holdings rose by about $45 bln. Only about $1 bln was due to central banks. Their note and bond purchases appeared to have been large funded by shifting funds from the bill sector. Of the private sector increase, the lion's share (almost $31 bln) can be accounted for by Belgium. The US Treasury data suggests that Belgium owns Treasuries equivalent to roughly 3/4 of its GDP.
No doubt this overstates the case. Instead, Belgium's holdings, third overall behind China and Japan, are most likely a function of the role of Brussels as a financial center. The bank-owned clearer and custodian, Euroclear has around 22 trillion euro of assets and reports a large increase in Treasury holdings in recent months. Treasuries are ubiquitous collateral.
In January and February, the Federal Reserve reduced the amount of Treasuries it bought by $10 bln (and it reduced its purchases of Agencies by $10 bln as well). Foreign investors more than covered the difference, buying about $92 bln worth over the same period. Of this, foreign central banks accounted for about $15 bln.
US officials have long argued that the self-insurance strategy of building massive reserves is inefficient, expensive, and contributes to financial instability. Remember the Greenspan "conundrum": why US long-term rates were low even though the Fed had been raising short-term interest rates (circa 2004-2005). Bernanke responded by attributing it to Asia, which coming out of the 1997-98 financial crisis, began running significant current account surpluses and building reserve war chests. US officials have been consistent in recent years arguing that the self-insurance strategy is an obstacle to the agreed upon goal of reducing imbalances. They want private investors to buy US assets, including Treasuries, but are not so keen on foreign official purchases.
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