Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Foreign Ownership of U.S. Debt?

A few months ago, I asked the semi-rhetorical question, "Will China be Mad?" if the U.S. financial crisis costs them a trillion dollars or so. Subsequently, I wondered if it really even matters. In any event, Nouriel Roubini discussed it with brutal candor yesterday in yet another Tech Ticker piece - Big Risk: Surging Debt Makes U.S. More Dependent on China, Russia, Gulf States.
The big risk is that foreign holders of Treasuries will no longer accept low interest rates to help fund U.S. debt spending, says Roubini, noting countries like China, Russia and oil-producing nations in the Middle East have becoming increasingly important holders of Treasuries. Should they demand higher rates to hold U.S. debt or, worse, dump their holdings, it could have profound ramifications on the U.S. economy and the value of the dollar.Roubini further notes the Federal Reserve has put its balance sheet -- and independence -- at risk via its intimate involvement in thus-far failed attempts to stem the crisis.

It's tempting to dismiss the notion of a "run" on the U.S. government as unthinkable and some bears have been warning for years, even decades, about such a worst-case scenario. But after the events of this weekend, much less the past six months, it's clear that (almost) anything is possible and no scenario too "outrageous" to seriously contemplate.
The demise of Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Bear Stearns this year has investors contemplating the long-term outlook for other once-venerable institutions, including Dow members Citigroup, AIG and Bank of America. But there's an even bigger financial institution with greater debt and an increasing level of bad loans on its books: The U.S. government.

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