The United States, of course, is running massive budget deficits as part of our attempt to stimulate our economy and limit the financial damage that covid-19 is inflicting on our people, businesses and institutions.
In the last three months, according to Treasury statistics, our national debt has risen by an astounding $2 trillion — that’s trillion, with a T. It’s currently about $25.4 trillion and will rocket upward in future months.
Where is the money to fund our deficits going to come from?
So far, you can make a case that the Federal Reserve, whose Treasury holdings have risen by $1.6 trillion over the past three months, is financing most of the deficit by creating money.
In theory, if the Fed kept doing that, we wouldn’t need Chinese money or Japanese money or anything other than credits the Fed could create out of thin air to buy Treasury securities from the institutions that buy them from the Treasury.
But when you poke around a bit, you’ll see that a lot of the increase in the Fed’s Treasury holdings seems to be a one-time event stemming from recent Fed moves to unfreeze the credit markets rather than from an attempt to cover the federal budget deficit.
You’ll also discover that the Fed is slowing down its Treasury purchases even as the Treasury’s need for new cash is increasing.
So where’s the money going to come from? Historically, China has been a huge buyer of Treasury securities, and owned $1.08 trillion of them as of March 31, the most recent date for which Treasury numbers are available. (China’s holdings rank second, behind Japan’s $1.27 trillion.)
Despite it being a major U.S. creditor, you can see the political reasons that lead President Trump and his crew to attack China day in and day out.
First, they need a scapegoat for the disastrous impact that the coronavirus pandemic is having on the lives and economic welfare of Americans, and to divert attention away from their own failings.
Second, it’s helpful politically — although not morally or socially — to demonize “the other.” It lets Trump play offense rather than defense and try to get Americans to rally around the flag by claiming to be the protector of our country against evil foreigners.
Even though the Fed has indirectly funded most of the recent increase in our national debt it’s going to be interesting — and maybe really scary — to see what happens if the Fed’s Treasury purchases keep slowing down (although they’ll still be very high by historical stands) at the same time the Treasury’s need to borrow increases.
And to see if China attempts to counterattack Trump and undermine the dollar (and enhance the yuan’s status as a reserve currency) by selling some of its existing Treasury holdings or by announcing that its days of helping finance U.S. deficits have come to an end.
This wouldn’t be normal financial behavior. But thanks to Trump and the coronavirus, these aren’t normal times.
Among the reasons is a factor that I don’t think is being taken as seriously as it should be: Trump and the Republicans’ threats to cancel some of our debt to China to try to make the Chinese government pay for some of our covid-19 costs.
It’s easy to dismiss this as political posturing. But if I were a foreign lender, I’d sure be wary of lending money to the United States when it’s run by a president who acts on impulse, rules by decree and might just decide one day to declare the U.S. IOUs held by any particular country to be null and void.
Unless you think the Fed should print endless trillions of dollars to finance our budget deficits — I don’t, for reasons we’ll discuss another day — we need lenders, especially foreign lenders, to help finance our budget gap by buying vast amounts of ultra-low-yielding securities.
And insulting and demonizing our country’s second-largest creditor for domestic political reasons sure doesn’t seem like the way to go about it.