Archive for the 'capital account' Category

Nov 07 2011

Excuse me, China… could you lend us another billion? Understanding the imbalance of trade between China and the United States

The $1.4 Trillion Question – James Fallows – the Atlantic

American consumers are a curious bunch. Up until 2007, the average savings rate in the United States fell as low as 1%, and during brief period was actually negative. What does negative savings actually mean? It means that Americans consume more than they actually produce.On the micro level, the only way to consume beyond ones income is to borrow from someone else to pay for the additional consumption. In other words, savings must be negative for one to consume beyond his or her income. The US is a nation of borrowers, but from whom do we borrow? China, for one…

China is a nation of “savers”, where national savings averages 50% of income. What exactly does this mean? Well, just the opposite what negative savings means; rather than consuming more than it produces, the Chinese consume only about half of what it produces. Here’s how James Fallows, a Shanghai-based journalist, explains the China/US dilemma:

Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.
What happens to the rest of China’s output? Naturally, it’s shipped overseas for Americans and others in the West to consume. The irony is that the consumption of China’s products has been kept affordable and cheap thanks to the actions the Chinese government has taken to suppress the value of the RMB, thus keeping its products cheap and attractive to American consumers.

When the dollar is strong, the following (good) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, manufactured goods, and just about everything else (vacations in Europe!) goes down. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes up. Interest rates go down—for mortgage loans, credit-card debt, and commercial borrowing. Tax rates can be lower, since foreign lenders hold down the cost of financing the national debt. The only problem is that American-made goods become more expensive for foreigners, so the country’s exports are hurt.

When the dollar is weak, the following (bad) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, and so on (no more vacations in Europe) goes up. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes down. Interest rates are higher. Tax rates can be higher, to cover the increased cost of financing the national debt. The only benefit is that American-made goods become cheaper for foreigners, which helps create new jobs and can raise the value of export-oriented American firms (winemakers in California, producers of medical devices in New England).

Clearly, a strong dollar is good for America in many ways. The dollar’s strength in the last decade can be credited partially to the Chinese, who have been buying dollar denominated assets in record numbers over the last seven years.

By 1996, China amassed its first $100 billion in foreign assets, mainly held in U.S. dollars. (China considers these holdings a state secret, so all numbers come from analyses by outside experts.) By 2001, that sum doubled to about $200 billion… Since then, it has increased more than sixfold, by well over a trillion dollars, and China’s foreign reserves are now the largest in the world.

China’s purchase of American assets keeps demand for dollars on foreign exchange markets strong, thus the value of the dollar high relative to other currencies, allowing American firms and consumers the benefits of a strong dollars described above.
A nation’s balance of payments consists of the current account, which measures the difference between a country’s expenditures on imports and its income from exports (In 2008 China had a $232 billion current account surplus with the US, meaning the US bought more Chinese goods than China bought of American goods), and the capital account, which measures the difference between the inflows of foreign money for the purchase of real and financial assets at home and the outflows of currency for the purchase of foreign assets abroad. In the financial account, China maintains a deficit (meaning China holds more American financial and real assets than America does of China’s), to off-set its current account surplus.The two accounts together, by definition, balance out… usually. Any deficit in the China’s capital account that does not cover the surplus in its current account can be held as foreign exchange reserves by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC, however, prefers not to hold excess dollars in reserve, as the dollar’s value is continually eroded by inflation and depreciation; therefore it invests the hundreds of billions of excess dollars it receives from Americans’ purchase of Chinese goods back into the American economy, buying up American assets, with the aim of earning interest on these assets that exceed the inflation rates.

The “assets” the Chinese are using their large influx of dollars to buy are primarily US government bonds. The government issues these bonds to finance its budget deficits, and the Chinese are happy to buy these bonds for a couple of reasons: They are secure investments, meaning that unless the US government collapses, the interest on US bonds is guaranteed income for China. That’s one reason; but the primary reason is that the purchase of these bonds puts US dollars that were originally spent by American consumers on Chinese imports right back into the hands of American consumers (via government spending or tax rebates), so they can continue buying more Chinese imports.

The Chinese demand for dollar denominated financial assets, including government bonds, corporate stocks and bonds, and real assets like real estate, factories, buildings and so on, has resulted in a long period of a strong dollar. If the Chinese ever decided to stem the flow of dollars into American assets, the dollar’s value would plummet to record lows, leading to high inflation and eventually a balancing of America’s enormous current account deficit with China and the rest of the world.

However, a falling dollar is the last thing China wants to see happen, for two reasons: One, it would make Chinese imports more expensive thus less attractive to American households, thus harming Chinese manufacturers and slowing growth in China. Two, US dollars are an asset to China. Its $1.4 billion of US debt would evaporate if the dollar took a major plunge. To China, this would represent a loss of national wealth; in effect all that “savings” that makes China so unique would disappear as the dollar dived relative to the RMB. For these reasons, it seems likely that China will continue to be a willing buyer of America’s debt, thus the financier of Americans’ insanely high consumptive lifestyle.

Discussion Questions:
  1. Many people in America are terrified that the Chinese might dump their dollar holdings. What would happen to the value of the US dollar if China decided to change its foreign reserves to another currency?
  2. Why is it very unlikely that China will do this? In other words, how does the status quo benefit China as well as the US?
  3. How do American households benefit from China’s financing of the government’s budget deficits? In what way to they suffer from this arrangement?
  4. Do you think America can continue to finance its budget deficits through the continued sale of debt to foreigners forever? Why or why not?

152 responses so far

Nov 10 2010

Yeah, we have a trade deficit, SO WHAT?!

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 22  – “Balance of Payments” of my soon to be published textbook “Pearson Baccalaureate Economics”

If the total spending by a nation’s residents on goods and services imported from the rest of the world exceeds the revenues earned by the nation’s producers from the sale of exports to the rest of the world, the nation is likely experiencing a current account deficit. The situation is not at all uncommon among many of the world’s trading nations. The map belowmap  represents nations by their cumulative current account balances over the years 1980-2008. The red countries all accumulated current account deficits over the three decades, with the largest by far being the United States with a cumulative deficit of $7.3 trillion. The green countries are ones which have had a cumulative surplus in their current accounts, the largest surplus belonging to Japan at $2.7 trillion, followed by China at $1.5 trillion.

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cumulative_Current_Account_Balance.png

The top ten current account deficit nations are represented below. It is obvious from this chart that the United States alone accounts for a larger current account deficit then the next nine countries combined. At $7.3 trillion dollars in deficits over 28 years, the US deficit surpasses Spain’s (at number 2) by 1,000 percent.

The consequences of a nation having a current account deficit are not immediately clear. It should be pointed out that it is debatable whether a trade deficit is necessarily a bad thing, in fact. Below we will examine some of the facts about current account deficits, and we will conclude by evaluating the pros and cons for countries that run deficits in the short-run and in the long-run.

Implications of persistent current account deficits: When a country like like those above experience deficits in the current account for year after year, there are some predictable consequences that may have adverse effects on the nation’s macroeconomy. These include currency depreciation, foreign ownership of domestic assets, higher interest rates and foreign indebtedness.

The effect of a current account deficit on the exchange rate: In the previous chapter you learned about the determinants of the exchange rate of a nation’s currency relative to another currency. One of the primary determinants of a currency’s exchange rate is the demand for the nation’s exports relative to the demand for imports from other countries. With this in mind, we can examine the likely effects of a current account deficit on a nation’s currency’s exchange rate. Additionally, we will see that under a floating exchange rate system, deficits in the current account should be automatically corrected due to adjustments in exchange rates.

When households and firms in one nation demand more of other countries’ output than the rest of the world demands of theirs, there is upward pressure on the value of trading partners’ currencies and downward pressure on the importing nation’s currency. In this way, a movement towards a current account deficit should cause the deficit country’s currency to weaken.

As an illustration, say that New Zealand’s imports from Japan begin to rise due to rising incomes in New Zealand and the corresponding increase in demand for imports. Assuming Japan’s demand for New Zealand’s output does not change, New Zealand will move towards a deficit in its current account and Japan towards a surplus. In the foreign exchange market, demand for Japanese yen will rise while the supply of NZ$ in Japan increases, as seen above, depreciating the NZ$.

The downward pressure on exchange rates resulting from an increase in a nation’s current account deficit should have a self-correcting effect on the trade imbalance. As the NZ$ weakens relative to its trading partners’ currencies, consumers in New Zealand will start to find imports more and more expensive, while consumers abroad will, over time, begin to find products from New Zealand cheaper. In this way, a flexible exchange rate system should, in the long-run, eliminate surpluses and deficits between nations in the current account. The persistence of global trade imbalances illustrated in the map above is evidence that in reality, the ability of flexible exchange rates to maintain balance in nations’ current accounts is quite limited.

Foreign ownership of domestic assets: By definition, the balance of payments must always equal zero. For this reason, a deficit in the current account must be offset by a surplus in the capital and financial accounts. If the money spent by a deficit country on goods from abroad ends up in the does not end up returning to the deficit country for the purchase of goods and services, it will be re-invested into the county through foreign acquisition of domestic real and financial assets, or held in reserve by surplus nations’ central banks.

Essentially, a country with a large current account deficit, since it cannot export enough goods and services to make up for its spending on imports, instead ends up “exporting ownership” of its financial and real assets. This could take the form of foreign direct investment in domestic firms, increased portfolio investment by foreigners in the domestic economy, and foreign ownership of domestic government debt, or the build up of foreign reserves of the deficit nation’s currency.

The effect on interest rates: A persistent deficit in the current account can have adverse effects on the interest rates and investment in the deficit country. As explained above, a current account deficit can put downward pressure on a nation’s exchange rate, which causes inflation in the deficit country as imported goods, services and raw materials become more expensive. In order to prevent massive currency depreciation, the country’s central bank may be forced to tighten the money supply and raise domestic interest rates to attract foreign investors and keep demand for the currency and the exchange rate stable. Additionally, since a current account deficit must be offset by a financial account surplus, the deficit country’s government may need to offer higher interest rates on government bonds to attract foreign investors. Higher borrowing rates for the government and the private sector can slow domestic investment and economic growth in the deficit nation.

Side note: While the interest rate effect of a large current account deficit should be negative (i.e. causing interest rates to rise in the deficit country), in recent years the country with the largest trade deficit, the United States, has actually experienced record low interest rates even while maintaining persistent current account deficits. This can be understood by examining by the macroeconomic conditions of the US and global economies, in which deflation posed a greater threat than inflation over the years 2008-2010. The fear of deflation combined with low confidence in the private sector among international investors has kept demand for US government bonds high even as the US trade deficit has grown, allowing the US government and central bank to keep interest rates low and continue to attract foreign investors.

Whereas under “normal” macroeconomic conditions a build up of US dollars among America’s trading partners would require the US to raise interest rates to create an incentive for foreign investors to re-invest that money into the US economy, in the environment of uncertainty and low confidence in the private sector that has prevailed over the last several years, America’s trading partners have been willing to finance its current account deficit at record low interest rates.

The effect on indebtedness: A large current account deficit is synonymous with a large financial account surplus. One source of credits in the financial account is foreign ownership of domestic government bonds (i.e. debt). When a central bank from another nation buys government bonds from a nation with which it has a large current account surplus, the deficit nation is essentially going into debt to the surplus nation. For instance, as of August 2010, the Chinese central bank held $868 billion of United States Treasury Securities (government bonds) on its balance sheet. In total, the amount of US debt owned by foreign nations in 2010 was $4.2 trillion, or around 50% of the country’s total national debt and 30% of its GDP.source: http://www.ustreas.gov/tic/mfh.txt

On the one hand, foreign lending to a deficit nation is beneficial because it keeps demand for government bonds high and interest rates low, which allows the deficit country’s government to finance its budget without raising taxes on domestic households and firms. On the other hand, every dollar borrowed from a foreigner has to be repaid with interest. Interest payments on the national debt cost US taxpayers over $400 billion in 2010, making up around 10% of the federal budget. Nearly half of this went to foreign holders of US debt, meaning almost $200 billion of US taxpayer money was handed over to foreign interests, without adding a single dollar to aggregate demand in the US.

The opportunity cost of foreign owned national debt is the public goods and services that could have been provided with the money that instead is owed in interest to foreign creditors. If the US current account were more balanced, foreign countries like China would not have the massive reserves of US dollars to invest in government debt in the first place, and the taxpayer money going to pay interest on this debt could instead be invested in the domestic economy to promote economic growth and development.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would a large current account deficit cause a nation’s currency to depreciate? How could a weaker currency automatically reduce a nation’s current account deficit?
  2. Why should governments be concerned about a large trade deficit? What is one policy a government could implement to reduce a deficit in the current account?
  3. Would a nation with a large trade deficit be better off without trade at all? Why or why not?
  4. Discuss the validity of the following claim: “Americans buy tons of Chinese imports, but the Chinese don’t buy anything from America, this is why the US has such a huge trade deficit with China”. To what extent is this claim true or false?

6 responses so far

May 12 2009

Deteriorating terms of trade and the current account balance

U.S. Trade Gap Widens on Oil Imports – WSJ.com

Terms of trade is a term that is often misunderstood by IB Economics students. Simply put, a nation’s terms of trade refers to the relative price of a country’s exports to its imports.

When a country’s imports increase in price, while the value of its exports stays the same, the country’s terms of trade are said to deteriorate. As a nation experiences deteriorating terms of trade, it finds itself moving towards a deficit in its current account, meaning that expenditures on imports are growing more than income from exports, also called a trade deficit.

The United States has run trade deficits for most years since 1970. Since 2004 the US has annually spent over $600 billion MORE on imports than it earned from the sale of its exports. (Balance of trade data going back to 1960 can be found here).

Usually, when a country enters a recession, it would be expected that its balance of trade would improve, since households demand fewer imports and domestic inflation decreases making the country’s products more attractive to foreign households. In fact, in 2008, when the US entered its current recession, its trade deficit actually decreased. Recently, however, due to the weakness of many of its trading partners and a deterioration in terms of trade, America’s recession is accompanied by a deepening trade deficit:

The U.S. trade deficit widened for the first time in eight months during March, as the price and use of imported oil both climbed.

The U.S. deficit in international trade of goods and services increased to $27.58 billion from February’s revised $26.13 billion, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. Originally, the February deficit was estimated at $25.97 billion.

U.S. exports in March slipped by 2.4% to $123.62 billion from $126.63 billion as trading partners bought less consumer goods and cars from the U.S. U.S. imports fell at a lower rate, dropping 1.0% to $151.20 billion from February’s $152.76 billion

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did rising oil prices lead to an increase in America’s trade deficit?
  2. What determines demand for American exports in the rest of the world? Why is demand for American goods and services falling even as their prices decline due to deflation in the US?
  3. Where does America get the money to buy hundreds of dollars more in imports than it sells in exports? What do foreigners do with all the US dollars they earn from their enormous trade surplus with the US?
  4. Why doesn’t the US government simply place tariffs or quotas on imports to try and achieve more balanced trade with the rest of the world? Is this an appropriate response to a trade deficit?

3 responses so far

Nov 13 2007

“What’s sinking the dollar?” – for IB students

What’s sinking the dollar? – November 26, 2007

The US dollar has continued its downward spiral against the currencies of many of its trading partners. Today an American wanting to exchange his or her dollar for a Euro would have to fork over $1.46; for a British Pound, $2.07, and for a Canadian dollar, $1.05! It’s been 35 years since the Canadian dollar was even near parity ($1US = $1CA)! But what are the real forces behind this continually sinking dollar? This article lays it out straight and clear:

The forces behind the dollar’s weakening have been building for years but didn’t have much effect until recently. Most fundamentally, we Americans have been living beyond our means, buying more from the rest of the world than the world buys from us (that’s the trade deficit); to do that, we have to give foreigners claims on our assets in the form of government bonds and corporate bonds, or sometimes the assets themselves. A country as rich as America can do that for a long time, but eventually the world ends up holding more dollars than there is dollar-denominated stuff they want to buy, so they start offloading dollars. They also worry that any country with loads of debt–even the U.S.–may be tempted to inflate its currency, and that fear reduces its value.

Continue Reading »

3 responses so far

Oct 23 2007

The US dollar’s decline in value may cause more harm than good for the US economy

Asia Sentinel – A Falling Dollar Does Nobody Any Good

Many economists hail the decline in value of the US dollar as a boon to the American economy. It may sound counter-intuitive, but economic theory predicts that when a currency depreciates relative to other currencies, this could actually be good for the country’s economy? Why, you ask? Let’s consider an example:

In the last four months the value of a dollar in terms of euros has gone from 0.75 Euro cents to 0.69 Euro cents. For Europeans, that means that dollars are cheaper now than they were four months ago, therefore American goods are cheaper now than four months ago. Cheaper American products should mean more business for American companies as Europeans demand more of their stuff. Good for business, right? In the US, aggregate demand will shift out, unemployment should fall, and the price level should rise as more foreigners demand more American products. But what impact does the weaker dollar have on Americans? Continue Reading »

21 responses so far

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