Filling Up on Foreign Debts Americans Can Thank Overseas Lenders for Low Interest Rates

Article excerpt

The United States is a big spender internationally.

For years, Americans have bought more French cheese, Venezuelan oil, and other foreign goods than they've been selling in the way of corn, machines, and other exports. To pay foreigners for this trade deficit, the US has been borrowing money.

As a result, the world's richest nation has become the world's biggest debtor nation. And new statistics show that what economists term its "international investment position" slipped another $194 billion into the red last year to reach a negative $831 billion in total. That rapid growth rate puts US financial markets in a somewhat delicate position. Like the $4 trillion in domestic federal debt held by the public, the international debt is probably of no immediate threat to the economy. Nonetheless, it is something economists keep an eye on because of its influence on interest rates and perhaps even the stock market. "America has become increasingly reliant on the good graces of Asian investors to keep interest rates low," writes Stephen Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in New York. The inflow underpins "the valuation of a rather frothy US stock market." "The amount of foreign monies supporting the US debt market is astonishing," says Michael Cosgrove, editor of the Econoclast Advisory Service in Dallas. What if it slacks off? he asks. In June, the mere threat of this sent stock and bond prices plunging. Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was interpreted - inaccurately, according to Japanese officials - as saying that Tokyo might pull some of its money out of US capital markets. The inflow of foreign money has helped keep interest rates down, making up for a low national savings rate. If it drops off, interest rates could rise, hitting those buying a house or car with borrowed money. And rising rates could send stock market prices plunging. Last year, foreigners pumped in an amount equal to more than half of the all business, household, and government credit needs - from car loans to municipal bonds to business borrowing. Foreign money has helped finance the business investment boom in the US. This money hikes productivity, provides jobs. On one hand, the inflow reflects the attractiveness of the US for foreign investors. …