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Bearish on Uncle Sam?

The fear among economists is that those foreign lenders may grow concerned that their portfolios are too swollen with dollar-denominated assets.

The Chinese -- whose Treasury holdings have tripled since 2000, to $172 billion -- have already begun buying more euro-denominated assets, said Rebecca Patterson, a senior currency strategist at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.


Paul Calvetti of Barclays Capital lost money recently by betting that foreign investors would snap up long-term U.S. Treasury bonds. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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Earlier this year, both China and India diverted tens of billions of their dollar holdings to domestic projects, with China pumping $45 billion into its banks and India devoting $15 billion to infrastructure projects.

"China and India are no longer committed to open-ended dollar buying," Stephen S. Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley, warned clients yesterday. "At the margin this shift is negative for the dollar and for U.S. real interest rates."

As the big players begin to invest dollars domestically, the U.S. government is becoming more dependent on smaller nations, like Singapore and Korea, which may be quicker to sell off Treasurys and could demand higher interest rates, said Sung Won Sohn, chief economic officer at Wells Fargo Bank.

"The U.S. government will always be able to raise money -- well, at least in the foreseeable future," he said. "The question is, what will you have to pay and who will you get it from?"

The U.S. dependence on foreign capital concerns economists on both ends of the political spectrum. In a speech this March, Lawrence H. Summers, a Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration and now the president of Harvard University, warned of "a kind of global balance of financial terror," in which the economic well-being of the United States depends on the actions of foreign governments.

"There is surely something off about the world's greatest power being the world's greatest debtor," he said. "In order to finance prevailing levels of consumption and investment, must the United States be as dependent as it is on the discretionary acts of what are inevitably political entities in other countries?"

Desmond Lachman, an international economist at the American Enterprise Institute, writing for the conservative Web site Tech Central Station, cautioned that foreign central banks "now have considerable ability to disrupt U.S. financial markets by simply deciding to refrain from buying further U.S. government paper."

Patterson said that is not likely, comparing the situation to "a Texas standoff with two cowboys. . . . If Asia stops buying, the market will get wind of it very quickly, and they will rush out the door. And Asia will be hurt very badly."

To John Williamson, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics, that is cold comfort. The Chinese and Japanese central banks may maintain their huge reserves for defensive reasons, he said, but a smaller player, like Brazil or Singapore, could try to unload its dollar reserves, triggering a global sell-off. Like a mouse in a circus, even a bit player could cause the elephants to stampede.

"It's absolutely true that it wouldn't be in the interest of the world to do it, but any one country might think, 'I'll beat the crowd and diversify first,' " he warned. "I think that's the more likely scenario."


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