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Contents Background Capital Flows and the Dollar The U.S. Balance of Payments The U.S. Net International Investment Position Implications
February 5, 2010
The U.S. merchandise trade deficit is a part of the overall U.S. balance of payments, a summary statement of all economic transactions between the residents of the United States and the rest of the world, during a given period of time. Some Members of Congress and other observers have grown concerned over the magnitude of the U.S. merchandise trade deficit and the associated increase in U.S. dollar-denominated assets owned by foreigners. The current slowdown in global economic activity has reduced global trade flows and, consequently, reduced the size of the U.S. trade deficit. This report provides an overview of the U.S. balance of payments, an explanation of the broader role of capital flows in the U.S. economy, an explanation of how the country finances its trade deficit or a trade surplus, and the implications for Congress and the country of the large inflows of capital from abroad. The major observations indicate that:
* Foreign official and private investors sharply increased their purchases of U.S. Treasury securities in 2008 in response to uncertainty associated with disruptions in global financial markets. During the same period, foreign private investors sharply reduced their purchases of U.S. corporate stocks and bonds compared with 2007.
* The inflow of capital from abroad supplements domestic sources of capital and likely allows the United States to maintain its current level of economic activity at interest rates that are below the level they likely would be without the capital inflows.
* Foreign official and private acquisitions of dollar-denominated assets likely will generate a stream of returns to overseas investors that would have stayed in the U.S. economy and supplemented other domestic sources of capital had the assets not been acquired by foreign investors.
By standard convention, the balance of payments accounts are based on a double-entry bookkeeping system. As a result, each transaction that is entered into the accounts as a credit must have a corresponding debit and vice versa. This means that a surplus or deficit in one part of the accounts necessarily will be offset by a deficit or surplus, respectively, in another account so that, overall, the accounts are in balance. This convention also means that a deficit in one account, such as the merchandise trade account, is not necessarily the same as a debt. (1) The trade deficit can become a debt equivalent depending on how the deficit is financed and the expectations of those who hold the offsetting dollar-denominated U.S. assets. The balance of payments accounts are divided into three main sections: the current account, which includes the exports and imports of goods and services and personal and government transfer payments; the capital account, which includes such capital transfers as international debt forgiveness; and the financial account, which includes official transactions in financial assets and private transactions in financial assets and direct investment in businesses and real estate.
When the basic structure of the balance of payments was established, merchandise trade transactions dominated the accounts. Financial transactions recorded in the capital accounts generally reflected the payments and receipts of funds that corresponded to the importing and exporting of goods and services. As a result, the capital accounts generally represented "accommodating" transactions, or financial transactions associated directly with the buying and selling of goods and services. During this early period, exchange rates between currencies were fixed, and private capital flows, such as foreign investment, were heavily regulated so that nearly all international flows of funds were associated with merchandise trade transactions and with some limited government transactions.
Since the 1970s, however, private capital flows have grown markedly as countries have liberalized their rules governing overseas investing and as nations have adopted a system of floating exchange rates, where the rates are set by market forces. Floating exchange rates have spurred demand for the dollar. The dollar also is sought for investment purposes as it has become a vehicle itself for investment and speculation. This means that the balance of payments record not only the accommodating flows of capital which correspond to imports and exports of goods and services, but also autonomous flows of capital that are induced by a broad range of economic factors that are unrelated directly to the trading of merchandise goods.
Capital Flows and the Dollar
Liberalized capital flows and floating exchange rates have greatly expanded the amount of autonomous capital flows between countries. These capital transactions are undertaken in response to commercial incentives or political considerations that are independent of the overall balance of payments or of particular accounts. As a result of these transactions, national economies have become more closely linked, the process some refer to as "globalization." The data in Table 1 provide selected indicators of the relative sizes of the various capital markets in various countries and regions and the relative importance of international foreign exchange markets. In 2008, these markets amounted to nearly $700 trillion, or more than 30 times the size of the U.S. economy. Worldwide, foreign exchange and interest rate derivatives, which are the most widely used hedges against movements in currencies, were valued at $486 trillion in 2008, 50% larger than the combined total of all public and private bonds, equities, and bank assets. For the United States, such derivatives total nearly three times as much as all U.S. bonds, equities, and bank assets.
Another aspect of capital mobility and capital inflows is the impact such capital flows have on the international exchange value of the dollar. Demand for U.S. assets, such as financial securities, translates into demand for the dollar, since U.S. securities are denominated in dollars. As demand for the dollar rises or falls according to overall demand for dollar-denominated assets, the value of the dollar changes. These exchange rate changes, in turn, have secondary effects on the prices of U.S. and foreign goods, which tend to alter the U.S. trade balance. At times, foreign governments have intervened in international capital markets to acquire the dollar directly or to acquire Treasury securities in order to strengthen the value of the dollar against particular currencies. In addition, various central banks moved aggressively following the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s to bolster their holdings of dollars in order to use the dollars to support their currencies should the need arise.
The dollar is also heavily traded in financial markets around the globe and, at times, plays the role of a global currency. Disruptions in this role have important implications for the United States and for the smooth functioning of the international financial system. During the decade preceding the current financial crisis, banks and other financial institutions expanded their global balance sheets from $10 trillion in 2000 to $34 trillion in 2007. These assets were comprised primarily of dollar-denominated claims on non-bank entities, including retail and corporate lending, loans to hedge funds, and holdings of structured finance products based on U.S. mortgages and other underlying assets. As the crisis unfolded, the short-term dollar funding markets served as a major conduit through which financial distress was transmitted across financial markets and national borders, according to analysts with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). (2) When these short-term dollar funding markets collapsed in the early stages of the crises, the U.S. Federal Reserve had to engage in extraordinary measures, including a vast system of currency swap arrangements with central banks around the world, to supply nearly $300 billion. After initially expanding the then-existing reciprocal currency arrangements (swap lines) with the European Central Bank, the …