An oldie but a goodie (via Andrew Abraham). Warren Buffett explains in allegory why the trade deficit is bad news for the dollar over the long-run. [He wrote this piece in 2003, by the way. Since then, America’s current account balance has worsened significantly.] And it’s not just the dollar that will suffer, it will be America’s standard of living relative to the rest of the world……this is what people mean when they say the baby boom and Gen X are literally mortgaging their children’s future. For those with time, I recommend reading Buffett’s whole article.
….our trade deficit has greatly worsened, to the point that our country’s “net worth,” so to speak, is now being transferred abroad at an alarming rate.
A perpetuation of this transfer will lead to major trouble. To understand why, take a wildly fanciful trip with me to two isolated, side-by-side islands of equal size, Squanderville and Thriftville. Land is the only capital asset on these islands, and their communities are primitive, needing only food and producing only food. Working eight hours a day, in fact, each inhabitant can produce enough food to sustain himself or herself. And for a long time that’s how things go along. On each island everybody works the prescribed eight hours a day, which means that each society is self-sufficient.
Eventually, though, the industrious citizens of Thriftville decide to do some serious saving and investing, and they start to work 16 hours a day. In this mode they continue to live off the food they produce in eight hours of work but begin exporting an equal amount to their one and only trading outlet, Squanderville.
The citizens of Squanderville are ecstatic about this turn of events, since they can now live their lives free from toil but eat as well as ever. Oh, yes, there’s a quid pro quo — but to the Squanders, it seems harmless: All that the Thrifts want in exchange for their food is Squanderbonds (which are denominated, naturally, in Squanderbucks).
Over time Thriftville accumulates an enormous amount of these bonds, which at their core represent claim checks on the future output of Squanderville. A few pundits in Squanderville smell trouble coming. They foresee that for the Squanders both to eat and to pay off — or simply service — the debt they’re piling up will eventually require them to work more than eight hours a day. But the residents of Squanderville are in no mood to listen to such doomsaying.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Thriftville begin to get nervous. Just how good, they ask, are the IOUs of a shiftless island? So the Thrifts change strategy: Though they continue to hold some bonds, they sell most of them to Squanderville residents for Squanderbucks and use the proceeds to buy Squanderville land. And eventually the Thrifts own all of Squanderville.
At that point, the Squanders are forced to deal with an ugly equation: They must now not only return to working eight hours a day in order to eat — they have nothing left to trade — but must also work additional hours to service their debt and pay Thriftville rent on the land so imprudently sold. In effect, Squanderville has been colonized by purchase rather than conquest.
It can be argued, of course, that the present value of the future production that Squanderville must forever ship to Thriftville only equates to the production Thriftville initially gave up and that therefore both have received a fair deal. But since one generation of Squanders gets the free ride and future generations pay in perpetuity for it, there are — in economist talk — some pretty dramatic “intergenerational inequities.”
Let’s think of it in terms of a family: Imagine that I, Warren Buffett, can get the suppliers of all that I consume in my lifetime to take Buffett family IOUs that are payable, in goods and services and with interest added, by my descendants. This scenario may be viewed as effecting an even trade between the Buffett family unit and its creditors. But the generations of Buffetts following me are not likely to applaud the deal (and, heaven forbid, may even attempt to welsh on it).
Think again about those islands: Sooner or later the Squanderville government, facing ever greater payments to service debt, would decide to embrace highly inflationary policies — that is, issue more Squanderbucks to dilute the value of each. After all, the government would reason, those irritating Squanderbonds are simply claims on specific numbers of Squanderbucks, not on bucks of specific value. In short, making Squanderbucks less valuable would ease the island’s fiscal pain.
That prospect is why I, were I a resident of Thriftville, would opt for direct ownership of Squanderville land rather than bonds of the island’s government. Most governments find it much harder morally to seize foreign-owned property than they do to dilute the purchasing power of claim checks foreigners hold. Theft by stealth is preferred to theft by force.
So what does all this island hopping have to do with the U.S.? Simply put, after World War II and up until the early 1970s we operated in the industrious Thriftville style, regularly selling more abroad than we purchased. We concurrently invested our surplus abroad, with the result that our net investment — that is, our holdings of foreign assets less foreign holdings of U.S. assets — increased (under methodology, since revised, that the government was then using) from $37 billion in 1950 to $68 billion in 1970. In those days, to sum up, our country’s “net worth,” viewed in totality, consisted of all the wealth within our borders plus a modest portion of the wealth in the rest of the world.
Additionally, because the U.S. was in a net ownership position with respect to the rest of the world, we realized net investment income that, piled on top of our trade surplus, became a second source of investable funds. Our fiscal situation was thus similar to that of an individual who was both saving some of his salary and reinvesting the dividends from his existing nest egg.
In the late 1970s the trade situation reversed, producing deficits that initially ran about 1 percent of GDP. That was hardly serious, particularly because net investment income remained positive. Indeed, with the power of compound interest working for us, our net ownership balance hit its high in 1980 at $360 billion.
Since then, however, it’s been all downhill, with the pace of decline rapidly accelerating in the past five years. Our annual trade deficit now exceeds 4 percent of GDP. Equally ominous, the rest of the world owns a staggering $2.5 trillion more of the U.S. than we own of other countries. Some of this $2.5 trillion is invested in claim checks — U.S. bonds, both governmental and private — and some in such assets as property and equity securities.
In effect, our country has been behaving like an extraordinarily rich family that possesses an immense farm. In order to consume 4 percent more than we produce — that’s the trade deficit — we have, day by day, been both selling pieces of the farm and increasing the mortgage on what we still own.
To put the $2.5 trillion of net foreign ownership in perspective, contrast it with the $12 trillion value of publicly owned U.S. stocks or the equal amount of U.S. residential real estate or what I would estimate as a grand total of $50 trillion in national wealth. Those comparisons show that what’s already been transferred abroad is meaningful — in the area, for example, of 5 percent of our national wealth.
More important, however, is that foreign ownership of our assets will grow at about $500 billion per year at the present trade-deficit level, which means that the deficit will be adding about one percentage point annually to foreigners’ net ownership of our national wealth. As that ownership grows, so will the annual net investment income flowing out of this country. That will leave us paying ever-increasing dividends and interest to the world rather than being a net receiver of them, as in the past. We have entered the world of negative compounding — goodbye pleasure, hello pain.