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Of Course Foreigners Are Buying Up America!

Nouriel Roubini points out that of course foreigners are buying up America: we're running a current account deficit:

RGE - With the US current account deficit close to a trillion dollars of course foreigners will soon own most of the US capital stock : The current political saga and debate about the purchase by a Dubai-based company of the management of six US ports misses the most crucial point: with a US current account deficit running towards $900b this year and probably above one trillion $ next year, in a matter of a few years foreigners may end up owning most of the U.S. capital stocks: ports, factories, corporations, land, real estate and even our national parks. This is basic accounting: if you run a current account deficit (import more than export, spend more than your income, save less than you invest) you need to borrow from the rest of the world to finance such excess of spending (on private and public consumption and investment) over your national income. And you need to borrow on net every year to the tune of the current account deficit. That is why countries that run current account deficits become net foreign debtors.

There are only two ways in which this accumulation of foreign liabilities of a debtor country can occur: either debt (when you issue private or government bonds purchased by foreigners and when you borrow in the form of bank or other loans from foreigners) or equity that can take the forms of FDI (foreign direct investment when non-residents acquire a domestic firm or other domestic assets such as real estate or when they build a new factory in the US) or portfolio investment in the equity market. So, it is either debt or equity but in either case the foreign liabilities of the US go up and foreigners increase debt or equity claims against the US. It is as simple as that and, with a trillion $ current account deficit the US foreign liabilities will increase every year by a trillion dollars.

Now, until recently, foreigners have financed the US current account deficit more in the form of debt rather than equity. Since a good fraction of this current account deficit was driven in the 2004-2005 period by the growing US fiscal deficit, the foreigners have piled up more and more Treasury bills and bond. Indeed, by now over 53% of all Treasuries are held by non-residents, a good fraction of which by foreign central banks. But, increasingly, foreigners are starting to realize that exchanging their goods and services for lousy low-return IOUs of the US government is a most lousy deal for them. Why hold Treasuries that give you a mediocre 4.5% return over 30 years when you can instead buy higher return capital such as US corporation, US factories, ports, real estate and any other asset currently owned by American in this great land of ours?

The nationalistic political backlash against this foreign acquisition of US capital it altogether hypocritical. Foreigners are selling us their high quality goods and services because we are on a national consumption binge and they are getting tired of getting in return useless low-return IOUs of the US government. There are plenty of great assets and gems in the US that are much more worth and provide in the long run much higher returns than T-bills. So, they rationally want to buy those assets, i.e. lend us in the form of equity rather than debt. And these foreigners are, increasingly, not just private investors but also central banks and other public authorities that have accumulated low-return dollar reserves to the tune of almost $400b last year alone with a total stock of such dollar reserves that is close to $3 trillion now.

Also, altogether hypocritical is the behavior of US politicians who lobby hard all of the world to open up their markets to US foreign direct investment and now they are screaming, under the fig leaf of national security, about the foreign FDI into the U.S....

I'd agree with Nouriel if there weren't signs that the FBI and the Coast Guard are not the happiest of campers about the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. But on the big point he's right: Economic growth produces about $1.3 trillion of new net wealth in America every year, and at a current account deficit of $1 trillion only $300 billion of that is an addition to the wealth of Americans--the $1 trillion that matches the current-account deficit is an addition to the wealth of foreigners.