Record U.S. budget deficit renews China's concern about its dollar assets

08:38, February 04, 2010      

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Chinese economists are again concerned about the value of the country's dollar-denominated assets after the U.S. government's budget plan unveiled Monday forecast a record deficit for 2010.

The economists are worried that, if the Congress approved the budget plan, the U.S. federal government will issue more bonds and print more money to finance the deficit, which may prompt dollar depreciation. Dollar depreciation erodes the value of China's holdings of dollar-denominated assets.

The same fears took hold almost one year ago when the U.S. government said it would issue up to 2.56 trillion U.S. dollars of treasury bond debt to stimulate the economy to get through the recession.

This time the budget deficit is larger. The Obama administration on Monday proposed a budget of 3.83 trillion U.S. dollars for fiscal year 2011 with a forecast deficit of 1.56 trillion U.S. dollars in 2010.

The planned fiscal deficit is 10.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) - up from a 9.9 percent share in 2009 - the largest deficit as measured against GDP since the second world war.

He Maochun, director of the Center for Economic Diplomacy Studies at Tsinghua University, said the deficit would be financed by those holding U.S. dollar-denominated assets with the main channel to transfer the risks caused by the deficit being the issuance of U.S. treasury bonds.

The U.S. is already in enormous debt, with Treasury data showing public debt topping 12 trillion U.S. dollars in November last year, the highest ever.

To pay for the deficit, the U.S. federal government will borrow 392 billion dollars in the January to March quarter of 2010, according to a Treasury Department statement released Monday. It will then issue 268 billion U.S. dollars of treasury bonds in the second quarter.

Experts said the record deficit suggests the federal reserve will continue to flood more money into the market. The massive issuance of treasury bonds, the large fiscal deficit and the printing of the dollar will prompt further declines in the value of dollar, they said.

In 2009, the greenback depreciated against major currencies by 8.5 percent, according to China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE).

China is the biggest foreign holder of the U.S. government debt. As of the end of November last year, China held 789.6 billion U.S. dollars of U.S. treasury bonds. Moreover, more than 60 percent of China's 2.399 trillion U.S. dollar stockpile of foreign exchange reserves - the world's largest - is in dollars.

Cao Honghui, director of the Financial Market Research Office of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a government think tank, said the massive U.S. deficit spending and near-zero interest rates would erode the value of U.S. bonds.

The U.S. government should not transfer the problems of enormous debt to other nations or regions that are creditors like China, he added.

The SAFE said in a statement in December 2009 that China would diversify its foreign exchange reserve holdings - both currencies and securities - to reduce risk.

Liu Yuhui, an economist with the CASS, said late last month China may scale back its purchases of U.S. debt on concern the dollar will decline.

China trimmed its holdings of U.S. government debt by 9.3 billion U.S. dollars in November last year - the biggest cut in five months - taking them down to 789.6 billion U.S. dollars.

Ding Zhijie, associate dean at the finance school at the University of International Business and Economics, said China had been securing its investment value by using its foreign exchange reserves for imports and acquisition in 2009.

"More reserves should be used for investment in materials and resources, which can reduce the risk," he said, adding that he expects the purchasing spree to continue this year.

The deficit is expected to ease slightly to 1.3 trillion U.S. dollars in 2011, but that still represents 8.3 percent of 2011 GDP.

But Ding said it is necessary for the U.S. to keep its powerful fiscal stimulus policy in place, as the economic recovery is fragile and remains uncertain.

The U.S. economy shrank 2.4 percent in 2009, but the U.S. government is projecting GDP growth of 2.7 percent in 2010 and an unemployment rate average of 10 percent.

Zuo Xiaolei, chief economist at China Galaxy Securities, said the U.S. had no choice but to rely on massive government spending to ensure the economic recovery.

The budget deficit will pump money into the economy and generate jobs, which in turn will generate greater tax revenue that can help pay off the debt, Zuo said.

"But there is still a risk the policy will fail and that debt will grow beyond the government's ability to pay," in which case the entire global recovery will be threatened.

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