The cost of US debt and rebalancing Asian growth

Author: Peter Warr, ANU

Since the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98, the countries of East Asia have, in aggregate, run huge annual current account surpluses.

The counterparts of these surpluses, including Europe and the US, have been correspondingly huge current account deficits. This process has continued for over a decade and a half, and huge stocks of debt have accumulated. Much of this is US government debt owed to the central banks of the East Asian countries. About half of it is held by China. It is expected that the debt will eventually be repaid and this implies that the surpluses must eventually turn into deficits, and vice versa. Indefinite accumulation of debt is unsustainable.

Current account imbalances are not necessarily a problem. They reflect what international economists call international inter-temporal trade. One country (the surplus country) is exchanging current goods and services for financial assets, which are claims on goods and services in the future. The other country (the deficit country) is doing the reverse. Mutual gains from trade arise from these transactions because the initial circumstances of the countries involved are not the same. For some countries it makes sense to save more now, because they have a younger working age population, for example, in order to consume or invest more later. For others, the reverse applies. In this respect, inter-temporal trade is not fundamentally different from contemporaneous trade in goods and services. But basic differences do exist. The time dimension can mean that the individuals obliged to repay a debt may not be the same as those who incurred it. So the outcomes chosen by this generation of Americans, for example, can create an unwelcome problem for the next generation.

Many observers regard the present global imbalances as unsustainable, even in the short run. First, East Asian countries may be unwilling to continue to accumulate US debt and even wish to reduce the stock they hold. Second, the US may be unwilling to allow this accumulation of indebtedness to continue and seek to reduce the stock of debt they currently owe. The two are not mutually exclusive and could happen at the same time. They both rest on the fear that the burden of debt servicing might suddenly become intolerable for the debtors, notably the US, meaning an unexpectedly rapid adjustment becomes necessary.

East Asia’s current account surpluses may have to decline, and even turn into deficits, very quickly. This must happen eventually — the question is when. It might not be a problem if it happens ‘gradually and predictably’. But if it happens ‘soon’, at an unexpectedly rapid rate, there may be a serious adjustment problem involved. If the problem is anticipated it might be possible to avoid the large-scale unemployment and other social costs that would otherwise result. But these events are uncertain, and ‘growth rebalancing’ is essentially a problem of risk management.

From the perspective of the East Asian countries, the interest in growth rebalancing is motivated by two concerns. First, there is the possibility that current account surpluses (positive flows) will turn into deficits (negative flows) quickly, leading to social disruption and other adjustment costs. Second, there is the fear that the stock of debt owed to them may become so high that it becomes impossible to repay. The first concern is more immediate.

Especially since the Asian financial crisis, the countries of Asia and the Pacific have, to varying extents, focused their production towards exports and away from their domestic markets. But if the current account surpluses are to be reduced significantly, or even reversed, then resources must be reallocated towards production for the domestic market to avoid massive unemployment. For the deficit countries the problem is exactly the reverse. The policy imperative is similar in both cases: avoid the disruption — especially large-scale unemployment — resulting from having to adjust too rapidly.

The issue is not really whether such growth rebalancing will occur, but when, at what rate and by what means. In the current global environment Asia is vulnerable to such an adjustment problem arising at short notice. Some ‘rebalancing’ now — away from reliance on external demand and towards domestic demand — can reduce this vulnerability by reducing Asia’s export dependence.

A simple model of the global demand and supply of loanable funds can be used to bring out a key feature of the adjustment options. Suppose the deficit countries, principally the US, wish to reduce their current account deficits. Is it better for the US to make the adjustment itself or attempt to induce Asia to adjust by reducing its surplus? If the US adjusts, its excess demand for funds declines, the level of its current account deficit declines and world interest rates fall. If Asia contracts its excess supply of funds, the same combination of current account balances may result, but with an increase in world interest rates.

Given the huge level of its stock of debt, the US has a strong interest in low world interest rates. It should therefore do the adjusting itself and not be berating Asia to reduce its current account surpluses.

Peter Warr is John Crawford Professor of Agricultural Economics and Head of the Arndt-Corden Department of Economics in the Crawford School of Economics and Government at ANU.