by Joseph Joyce
The Exorbitant Privilege in a World of Low Interest Rates
The U.S. dollar has long enjoyed what French finance minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing called an “exorbitant privilege.” The U.S. can finance its current account deficits and acquisition of foreign assets by issuing Treasury securities that are held by foreign central banks as reserves. The dollar’s share of foreign reserves, while falling, remains over 60%. But in a world of low interest rates, how exorbitant is this privilege, and is it solely a U.S. phenomenon?
John Plender of the Financial Times has pointed out that U.S. Treasury bonds offer a rate of return that matches or is higher than that of other government bonds with similar risk ratings. This is true whether we look at nominal returns or real rates of return. The nominal returns reported below are those available on the ten-year government bonds of Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., while the changes in prices are those reported for their Consumer Price Indexes :
|Nominal Return||Change in Prices||Real Return|
The bonds of other advanced economies offer higher yields but more risk. The rate of return on ten-year Italian government bonds is 2.68% and on Greek bonds 3.49%. An investor in government bonds can do better in Brazil (8.76%) or Mexico (8.09%), but these securities also come with the risk of depreciation.
Private foreign investors also hold U.S. Treasury debt as well as U.S. corporate securities. John Ammer of the Federal Reserve Board (FRB) , Stijn Claessens of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), Alexandra Tabova (FRB) and Caleb Wroblewski (FDB) analyzed the foreign private holdings of U.S. bonds in “Home Country Interest Rates and International Investment in U.S. Bonds,” published in the Journal of International Money and Finance in 2018 (working paper here). They collected data for 31 countries where private residents held both U.S. Treasury securities and corporate bonds during the period of 2003-2016. They found that low domestic interest rates led to increased holdings of U.S. bonds, and in particular, corporate securities. The corporate share of foreign-held U.S. securities in these countries had risen to about 60% by the end of their sample period.
The “long equity, short debt” structure of the U.S. external balance sheet is not unique to the U.S. Robert McCauley of the BIS in “Does the US Dollar Confer an Exorbitant Privilege?”, also published in the JIMF in 2015, shows that foreign holdings of Australian government bonds have allowed that country to accumulate foreign currency assets. Some of these holdings were attributed to the desire of foreign central banks to hold safe and liquid assets.
U.S. Treasury securities possess an appeal besides their relatively attractive rates of return in a world of low interest rates. They are seen as safe assets, and given the size of the U.S. economy and the liquidity of its capital markets, it is not surprising that they hold a predominant role in the global financial system. But Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas of UC-Berkeley, Hélène Rey of the London Business School and Maxime Sauzet of UC-Berkeley have pointed out in “The International Monetary and Financial System” (NBER Working paper #25782) that the mounting size of the eternal debt of the U.S. may lead to a loss of confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to service it without engaging in inflationary finance or triggering a depreciation of the dollar. At the same time, the relative size of the U.S. economy in global output is shrinking while the demand for dollar liquidity is growing. They conclude that this may be the basis of a “New Triffin Dilemma.”
There is, however, another, more immediate danger. The U.S. reached its debt ceiling of $22 trillion on March 2. The Department of the Treasury can engage in various measures to continue paying the government’s bills until next fall. The White House wants to obtain a rise in the debt ceiling this spring before it has to engage in budget negotiations with Congress. But given the toxic relations between the Trump administration and the House of Representatives, the danger of a lack of agreement cannot be dismissed. The Trump administration promised to disrupt the global order, and the full extent of that disruption may have only begun.