Debt burden now rests more on U.S. shoulders


By Floyd Norris
The New York Times
Friday, January 22, 2010

The United States government borrowed more money than ever before in 2009, but its largest lender -- China -- sharply reduced the amount it was willing to lend.

The U.S. Treasury estimated this week that during the first 11 months of last year China raised its holdings of Treasury securities by just $62 billion. That was less than 5 percent of the money the Treasury had to raise.

That raised its holdings to $790 billion, leaving it the largest foreign holder of Treasury securities -- Japan is second at $757 billion and Britain a distant third at $278 billion. But China’s holdings at the end of November were lower than they were at the end of July.

Not since 2001, when China was still a relatively minor investor in Treasury securities, had the country shown a decline in holdings over a six-month period.

During the full year of 2009, the volume of outstanding Treasury securities owned by the public -- as opposed to United States government agencies like the Federal Reserve or the Social Security Administration -- rose by $1.4 trillion, a 23 percent gain, to $7.8 trillion. In dollar terms, that was the largest annual increase ever, but as a percentage increase it slightly trailed 2008.

With this week's release of the November estimate of foreign holdings, China is on course to lend just 4.6 percent of the money the government raised during the year. That compared with 20.2 percent in 2008 and a peak of 47.4 percent in 2006.

The falloff in Chinese purchases did not necessarily cost the American government a lot of money, as interest rates did not soar during the year. Short-term rates actually fell. The yield on 10-year Treasuries rose to 3.6 percent, from 2.2 percent, a substantial increase but still a low rate by historical standards.

Some economists have feared what could happen if China ever decided to unload the Treasury securities it owns, but the reduction of Chinese purchases probably did not result from any decision to do that, said Robert Barbera, the chief economist of ITG, an investment advisory firm.

Instead, he said, China's main determination now was to prevent the rise of its currency against the dollar, and the country needed to buy fewer dollar-denominated securities to accomplish that goal, as the Chinese trade surplus with the United States declined.

The figures on foreign holdings estimated by the Treasury Department include both official and private holdings. In China, that is mostly official, but in some other countries many of the holdings are owned by investors or money managers who could be managing portfolios on behalf of people from yet another country. It is possible that some Chinese purchases appear to be from other countries.

Other countries took up part of the slack left by the reduction in China's purchases. Hong Kong, which is counted separately, took up more than 5 percent of the increased borrowing by the American government, and Japan provided nearly 10 percent.

But total foreign purchases in the 11 months financed only 39 percent of the borrowing, leaving American investors to purchase the remainder. As recently as 2007, foreigners were buying more Treasuries than the government was issuing, enabling Americans to reduce their Treasury holdings even as the government borrowed hundreds of billions of dollars.

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