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The global trading and financial systems require lubrication by an adequate supply of homogeneous assets that can be bought and sold at low cost and are expected to hold their value. For half a century, US Treasury bills and bonds played this role. Their unique combination of safety and liquidity has made them the dominant vehicle for bank funding globally: it explains why the bulk of foreign exchange reserves are held in dollar form, and why the role of dollar credit in financing and settling international trade far exceeds the US share of international merchandise transactions.
But as emerging markets continue to rise, the US will unavoidably account for a declining fraction of global gross domestic product, limiting its ability to supply safe and liquid assets on the scale required. The US Treasury’s capacity to stand behind its obligations is limited by the revenues it can raise, which depend, in any scenario, on the relative size of the US economy. With emerging markets’ growth outstripping that of the US, the increase in the capacity of the US Treasury to supply safe and liquid assets will inevitably lag behind the increase in global transactions.
For the US not to address its looming fiscal challenges would be more alarming still. America may not be at risk of default, because the Fed is there to backstop the market in Treasuries. But if the current situation persists, America’s sovereign obligations will not hold their value indefinitely. And if they fail to hold their value, they will not hold investors’ confidence. If they no longer offer the safety that investors have come to expect, they will not function as the stable collateral required by bank funding markets. They will not be regarded as an attractive form in which to hold international reserves. And they will not be seen as a convenient vehicle for merchandise transactions.