Increase Is Seen in Wealth of Autocracies
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
There is a new class of financial superpowers, and America is not one of them.
According to new research by a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Brad Setser, autocracies such as China and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, plus the governments of Russia and Venezuela, own nearly 80% of the world’s $1.71 trillion increase in foreign assets held by governments over the last year. Autocracies’ assets grew by 60% in the last year to $1.35 trillion, as of the second quarter, while democracies saw their assets plummet 7% to $360 billion during the same period.
“America has been running a large external deficit for some time, and this deficit is increasingly being financed by the sale of debt to foreign governments,” a fellow in geoeconomics at the Council on Foreign Relations, Brad Setser, said. “The roughly $35 billion that sovereign wealth funds put into U.S. financial institutions is dwarfed by foreign central banks’ purchase of treasury and agency bonds totaling $500 to $600 billion, and many of the governments buying this debt are either not allies or do not share all of America’s values.”
The discrepancy in wealth between autocracies and democracies may be even larger than this, Mr. Setser, said. This is because surging oil prices have yet to be included in China’s figures. “Throw in the fact that high oil prices have yet to put a dent in China’s current account surplus or the accumulation of China’s foreign assets, and the shift in financial power away from democratic governments is even more pronounced,” Mr. Setser wrote in a post on his Web log.
Mr. Setser based his calculations on the International Monetary Fund’s figures for foreign exchange reserves, national foreign data — including from Norway, Saudi Arabia, and China — and his own estimates of the wealth of sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf States.
Not every policy official is convinced that governments of foreign countries investing in American treasury bonds and agency debt is a negative. “The fact that all these countries are holding our debt is because it’s a good investment,” a fellow in financial policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Peter Wallison, wrote in an e-mail.
Autocracies are financing democracies with their oil reserves — which they accept payment for in dollars, Mr. Wallison noted — and are then using these dollars to buy American government securities. “I would be worried if we had to go hat in hand to sell our debt, like getting a mortgage, but instead (judging by our credit rating), people and governments around the world are delighted to lend to us.”
The recent growth spurt in the dollar — it strengthened 8% against the euro in the past month — and the lowering of commodity prices could also reduce the yawning gap between the wealth of autocracies and democracies in the future. “Spending has been trending up in foreign countries, so their surpluses could fall quite significantly,” Mr. Setser said.
Still, even if foreign countries’ asset growth diminished, it is unlikely to make a dramatic impact on the more than $700 billion in America’s current account deficit, Mr. Setser said.
America’s dependence on foreign funds can complicate foreign policy. Russia’s recent incursion into Georgia, for example, is “one of the first times the U.S. has a foreign policy where there is a significant amount of political tension between it and one of its biggest creditors,” Mr. Setser said. “As a result of the events in Georgia, Russia may become less willing to finance the U.S.”