When borrowing money it’s always good to have a Plan B in case a big creditor pulls the plug. That should be true whether the sum is a few thousand dollars or about a trillion, the size of the United States government’s debt to China.
With Chinese President Hu Jintao due to arrive in Washington on Tuesday, it is worth asking about U.S. officials’ Plan B just in case one day relations take a surprise turn for the worse and Beijing dumps its holdings of U.S. treasuries.
China is officially the United States’ biggest foreign creditor, with roughly $900 billion in Treasury holdings — or over $1 trillion with Hong Kong’s holdings included.
That means it could do severe damage to U.S. debt markets if it suddenly started selling large amounts.
Most experts say if there were signs of this happening, the U.S. government would go for a combination of persuading Americans to buy more U.S. debt, the same way they did in World War II, and finding friendly foreign governments to make additional purchases.
Banks could be called on to increase their holdings of treasuries, and as a last resort, the Federal Reserve could also be called on to fill the gap, though this could risk turning any dollar weakness into a slump.
“The U.S. government should have and maybe still could call on the people of the U.S. to invest in U.S. debt,” said David Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general who heads an advocacy group calling on the government to curb the U.S. budget deficit and borrowings.
To be sure, the idea that China would suddenly sell its U.S. debt holdings is almost unimaginable to some.
After all, any weakening in the U.S. debt markets and the resulting global markets turmoil, including likely weakness in the dollar, would bounce back on China and could hurt its economy badly, especially as the United States is such a huge Chinese export market.
It likely would take something like a massive rise in tensions over an issue like Taiwan or oil exploration in disputed areas of the South China Sea, including possible military confrontation between the two nations. Such a confrontation would also make it easier for Washington to appeal to the American public to buy its debt for patriotic reasons.
But Beijing could also justify pulling back sharply from U.S. Treasuries if the dollar were to plunge, perhaps because of Washington’s failure to curb its budget deficit and debt.
“I worry that we could be at a tipping point,” said Eswar Prasad, a Brookings Institution economist and former International Monetary Fund official with responsibility for China.
“If the Chinese say ‘We’re not buying any more Treasuries,’ this could act as a trigger around which nervous market sentiment coalesces,” he said. “People could start wondering how the U.S. is going to finance its deficit.”
In 2009, economist Brad Setser suggested the United States could establish emergency currency swap lines with political allies if a country like China ever abandoned the U.S. debt market. (By Emily Flitter, Reuters, Tue Jan 18, 2011 4:34pm EST)