Is it a risk for America that China holds over $1 trillion in U.S. debt?

by China Power

Many worry that China’s ownership of American debt affords the Chinese economic leverage over the United States. This apprehension, however, stems from a misunderstanding of sovereign debt and of how states derive power from their economic relations. The purchasing of sovereign debt by foreign countries is a normal transaction that helps maintain openness in the global economy. Consequently, China’s stake in America’s debt has more of a binding than dividing effect on bilateral relations between the two countries.

Even if China wished to “call in” its loans, the use of credit as a coercive measure is complicated and often heavily constrained. A creditor can only dictate terms for the debtor country if that debtor has no other options. In the case of the United States, American debt is a widely-held and extremely desirable asset in the global economy. Whatever debt China does sell is simply purchased by other countries. For instance, in August 2015 China reduced its holdings of U.S. Treasuries by approximately $180 billion. Despite the scale, this selloff did not significantly affect the U.S. economy, thereby limiting the impact that such an action may have on U.S. decision-making.

Furthermore, China needs to maintain significant reserves of U.S. debt to manage the exchange rate of the renminbi. Were China to suddenly unload its reserve holdings, its currency’s exchange rate would rise, making Chinese exports more expensive in foreign markets. As such, China’s holdings of American debt do not provide China with undue economic influence over the United States.

Any country that trades openly with other countries is likely to buy foreign sovereign debt. In terms of economic policy, a country can have any two but not three of the following: a fixed exchange rate, an independent monetary policy, and free capital flows. Foreign sovereign debt provide countries with a means to pursue their economic objectives.

The first two functions are monetary policy choices performed by a country’s central bank. First, sovereign debt frequently comprises part of other countries’ foreign exchange reserves. Second, central banks buy sovereign debt as part of monetary policy to maintain the exchange rate or forestall economic instability. Third, as a low-risk store of value, sovereign debt is attractive to central banks and other financial actors alike. Each of these functions will be discussed briefly.

Foreign Reserves

Any country open to international trade or investment requires a certain amount of foreign currency on hand to pay for foreign goods or investments abroad. As a result, many countries keep foreign currency in reserve to pay for these expenses, which cushion the economy from sudden changes in international investment. Domestic economic policies often require central banks to maintain a reserve adequacy ratio of foreign exchange and other reserves for short-term external debt, and to ensure a country’s ability to service its external short-term debt in a crisis. The International Monetary Fund publishes guidelines to assist governments in calculating appropriate levels of foreign exchange reserves given their economic conditions. Read more…


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