The U.S. has long been accused of using the international role of the dollar to exercise an “exorbitant privilege.” The term, first used by French finance minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, refers to the ability of the U.S. to finance its current account deficits and acquire foreign assets by issuing dollars as a reserve currency. While flexible exchange rates have lowered the need for reserve currencies, the use of the dollar in international trade and finance ensures that there is a continuing need for dollar-denominated assets. The status of the dollar contributes to the surplus in U.S. international investment income despite its negative net international investment position (NIIP). But France also has a surplus in international investment income and a negative NIIP. Does it possess its own privilege?
The U.S. surplus reflects the composition of its external balance sheet as well as the return on its assets and liabilities. The U.S. has a positive balance on equity, and in particular, FDI, which is offset by the negative balance on portfolio securities, such as bonds. U.S. Treasury bonds are the universal “safe asset,” held by private foreign investors as well as central banks. The return on the equity assets exceeds that paid on the debt liabilities, thus yielding a positive investment income balance. This is the return that the U.S. receives for playing the role of the “world’s venture capitalist,” according to Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas of UC-Berkeley and Hélène Rey of the London Business School. In addition, the U.S. receives a higher return on its FDI assets than it pays out on its FDI liabilities.
France also has a negative NIIP but a positive net international investment income balance. In 2018, for example, it received $35.6 billion in investment income. Moreover, the Banque de France pointed out in the 2015 Annual Report on the French Balance of Payments and International Investment Position that while the ratio of outward direct investment stocks to liabilities was 2 to 1, the ratio of FDI receipts to payments was 3 to 1. The French surplus, like that of the U.S., therefore can be attributed to both a “composition” effect reflecting the difference in the types of assets and liabilities it possesses, but also a “returns” effect due to the relatively higher return on its direct investment assets vis-à-vis its liabilities.