Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Foreign and external debt: not the same

In this whole discussion of the debt-ceiling limit the distinction between foreign debt (that is denominated in foreign currency) and external debt (owned by foreigners) has been often lost.  In the case of the US around 30% of Treasury securities are held by foreigners or around half if you discount the ones held by US governmental institutions (see data here). A country can default on its foreign debt, but not on the external debt denominated in domestic currency.

There is a fear (to some extent manufactured) about the Chinese taking over the country, and not just by pundits and late night comedians, as if the US would be unable to repay debt denominated in a currency that the US can produce.  Even Krugman has been excessively guarded on the issue. While noting correctly that the US is not Greece he said:
"So the US has much less debt than Greece. Also worth noting is the pattern over time. Greece ran up debt relative to GDP at a fairly good clip even during good times, while the United States — despite the Bush administration’s best efforts — did not. So America does not have a comparable record of sustained fiscal irresponsibility; we’ve only developed large deficits in response to the crisis, which happens to be exactly when we should be running large deficits.
And that’s not even to get into the issue of us having our own currency."
The fact that the US has it's own currency was almost an afterthought, and he avoided the crucially important fact that the external debt is in domestic currency.  The point of having your own currency is that you cannot default on debt denominated in it by definition.  This is not about fiscal responsibility or about how large debts and deficits are, but in what currency they are denominated.  The problem is not the ability to print bonds, bills, or dollar bills, which foreigners and the domestic private sector continue to hold without a problem, but the political blackmail by Republicans, and apparently accepted by Obama, to obtain gains for the rich at the expense of the rest.  Franklin Serrano aptly referred to this situation as dysfunctional finance!

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