America’s No. 1 Export: Debt
By Justin Fox
Japan and Germany make cars. Saudi Arabia pumps oil. China supplies the world with socks and toys and flat-screen TVs. What does the United States produce? Lots of stuff, but in recent years this country’s No. 1 export–by far–has been debt.
When you look at things this way, it becomes clearer what the frenzy in New York City and Washington is all about. There are major quality issues with our nation’s flagship product. The authorities have acknowledged the problem–“This is a humbling, humbling time for the United States of America” is how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson put it in one TV interview. So now Paulson & Co. are recalling defective financial products en masse, slapping GUARANTEED BY THE U.S. GOVERNMENT labels on some of them and replacing others outright with U.S. treasuries.
It’s textbook crisis management, similar to Johnson & Johnson’s famously forthright and successful reaction to the Tylenol tampering scare of 1982. So far, so good. But while Johnson & Johnson was soon able to restore Tylenol’s lost market share, the U.S. faces a different challenge.
Our quandary is that we are apparently not capable of safely manufacturing $700 billion in debt securities to sell to foreigners every year, as we’ve been doing since 2005. (That this is the same total as Treasury’s bailout plan is just a coincidence.) If we keep trying to borrow that much from overseas–as you’ve probably gathered, selling debt means borrowing money–today’s quality problems may soon seem petty. For now, we can still reassure buyers around the world by slapping that GUARANTEED label on our debt. But as financial crisis and economic slowdown cause government debts to burgeon, and as commitments to Social Security and Medicare loom closer as baby boomers retire, that confidence could easily fade.
So while today’s crisis management makes a certain amount of sense, returning to the borrow-and-spend status quo afterward seems like a disastrous idea. If the U.S. is to have a future as an economic power, its long love affair with borrowed money has to end. Right? “I hesitate to say yes, because people–including me–have been saying that it had to come to an end now for years, and it hasn’t,” says R. Taggart Murphy, an expert on global capital flows who teaches at the University of Tsukuba’s business school in Tokyo. Then he adds, “It looks pretty clearly like we’re in the endgame right now.”
This country’s move into big-time debt exports began with the big-time government deficits of the early 1980s–which had to be financed by somebody. “The Reagan Revolution was essentially an experiment in seeing how much money America could borrow from overseas,” says Murphy, who at the time was an investment banker in Tokyo. The answer was lots. Guided by Murphy and his ilk, Japan snapped up U.S. treasuries and other debt, keeping interest rates here from exploding as many had feared.
In the early 1990s, as the U.S. got its fiscal house in order, the capital inflows from overseas shrank. Late in the decade, they returned, with a twist: foreign investors and companies were buying into corporate America to get in on an economic boom. That boom ended in 2001. But the Bush Administration soon began running deficits, and foreigners discovered an American financial product to which they’d never paid much heed before: mortgage securities.
The result was a staggering increase in capital inflows. The inevitable flip side was a staggering rise in the current account deficit–basically, the trade deficit plus a few other things. It grew from $114 billion in 1995 to $417 billion in 2000 to a record $788 billion in 2006 before falling to $731 billion, or 5% of GDP, last year. Political discussion of this shortfall usually focuses on trade agreements and exchange rates. But if the U.S. simply stopped borrowing so much–that is, if Washington balanced its budget and restrained financial companies from loading U.S. households with ever more debt–the current account deficit would evaporate.
The housing crash and resulting credit crunch are already forcing U.S. households to retrench. Government–fearing disaster if everybody retrenches at the same time–has stepped into the breach. Again, that makes sense in a crisis. But once the panic has passed, the U.S. will simply be steering toward another, even bigger, crisis unless it finds something to replace debt as its No. 1 export.
Of course, less money borrowed means less money to spend. “Can you imagine McCain or Obama going around saying he wants to reduce your standard of living?” asks Murphy. Probably not. But maybe they could just sell it as, say, diversifying our product offering.
Extra Money To read Justin Fox’s daily take on business and the economy, go to time.com/curiouscapitalist