The U.S. has long benefitted from its ability to issue “safe assets” to the rest of the world. These usually take the form of U.S. Treasury bonds, although there was a period before the 2008-09 global financial crisis when mortgage-backed securities with Triple A ratings were also used for this purpose. The inflow of foreign savings has offset the persistent current account deficits, and put downward pressure on interest rates. But what will happen if U.S. government bonds are no longer considered safe?
The word safe has been used to describe different aspects of financial securities. The U.S. government in the past was viewed as committed to meeting its debt obligations, although the political theater around Congressional passage of the federal debt limit has introduced a note of uncertainty. In an extreme case, the U.S., like other sovereign borrowers with their own currencies, has the ability to print dollars to make debt payments. However, there is also a constituency of U.S. bondholders who would vehemently object if they were paid in inflated dollars.
Safety has also been linked with liquidity. U.S. financial markets are deep and active. Moreover, there is little concern that the government will impose capital controls on these portfolio flows (although FDI is now being scrutinized to deny access to domestic technology). Therefore, foreign holders of U.S. Treasury bonds can be confident that they can sell their holdings without disrupting the bond markets and contributing to sudden declines in bond prices.
However, there has always been another implicit component of the safety feature of Treasury bonds. Bondholders expect that they can claim their assets whenever they need to use them. The decision by the U.S. and European governments to deny the Russian central bank access to its own reserves has shown that foreign holders of assets placed on deposit in the U.S. or the other G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, France, United Kingdom) may not be able to use these assets at precisely the times when they are most needed. The Russian central bank had accumulated about $585 billion, but approximately half of that amount is no longer available. The central bank still has access to about $80 billion held in China and $29 billion at international institutions, as well as its holdings of gold. But the latter will be hard to convert to foreign currency if potential buyers are concerned about retaliatory sanctions.
The loss of access deprives the Russian central bank of foreign currency that could have helped the government deal with sanctions on its foreign trade. Moreover, the monetary authorities have not been able to use their reserves to halt the rapid decline in the ruble’s value. The other sanctions, therefore, will have a deep impact on the Russian economy. The Institute of International Finance has issued a forecast of a drop in its GDP of 15% in 2022 and another decline the following year.
The use of sanctions to cut off a central bank’s access to its own reserves raises questions concerning the structure of the international financial system. Other central banks will reassess their holdings and consider alternatives to how they are held. But what other country has safe and liquid capital markets that are not subject to capital controls and are not vulnerable to U.S. and European sanctions? The Chinese currency is used by some central banks, but it is doubtful that there will be a wide-spread transition from dollars to the renminbi.
Another concern has arisen regarding the ability of the U.S. government to meet its obligations. In order to satisfy a continued demand for safe assets, the government will need to continue to run budget deficits. But increases in the debt/GDP ratio leads to concerns about the creditworthiness of the government. This problem has been called a “new Triffin dilemma,” similar to the problem that emerged during the Bretton Woods era when the U.S. was pledged to be ready to exchange the dollar holdings of foreign central banks for gold. Economist Robert Triffin pointed out that the ability of the government to meet this obligation was threatened once the dollar liabilities of the U.S. exceeded its gold holdings. The “gold window” was finally shut in the summer of 1971 by President Richard Nixon.
These long-term concerns are arising just as the market for U.S. Treasury bonds has entered a new phase. The combination of higher inflation and changes in the Federal Reserve’s policy stance have led to increases in the rate of return on U.S. Treasury bonds to about 2.5%. With an annual increase in the CPI minus food and energy of approximately 6%, that leaves the real rate at -3.5%. Several more increases in the Federal Funds Rate will be needed to raise the real rate to positive values.
A fall in the demand for U.S. Treasury bonds by foreign banks and private holders would contribute to lower bond prices and higher yields. All this could affect the Federal Reserve’s policy moves if the Fed thought that it needed to factor lower foreign demand for Treasury bonds into their projections. Moreover, a shift from U.S. bonds would affect the financial account of the U.S., and the ability to run current account deficits. The exchange rate would also be affected by such a transition.
None of these possible changes will take place in the short-run. Central bankers have more pressing concerns, such as the impact of higher food and fuel prices on domestic inflation rates, and foreign central bankers will focus on the changes in the Fed’s policies, as well as those of the European Central Bank. But the sanctions on the use of foreign reserve assets will surely lead to changes over time in the amounts of reserves held by central banks as well as their composition. The imposition of these measures may one day be seen as part of a wider change in the international financial system that marks the end of globalization as we have known it.