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下任美国总统将面临难得一见的经济弱势

下任美国总统将面临难得一见的经济弱势

Shawn Tully 2020年10月13日
最有可能使美联储的招数失效的一个因素是美元大幅贬值。

让我们梳理一下当前的经济形势。首先,美联储开始采用一种之前从未尝试过的大胆策略,希望为受到新冠疫情打击的美国经济重新注入活力,并支撑从股票到住房等各种商品的价格。美联储的计划核心是让短期利率和长期收益率曲线低于通胀水平。美联储表示,超低成本的借款将吸引公司投资新工厂和晶圆厂,提高生产效率,刺激增长,并支持那些虽然产出不高但收益率远超国债的资产,使其能够维持高估值。

利率

美联储的立场得到了华尔街和美国企业界的广泛赞扬。但这也引发了一个令人不安的问题:利率如果由市场规范,给投资者带来的回报,通常会跑赢物价的整体趋势。这其中确有道理。银行和对冲基金等大型贷款机构,以及购买公司债券的投资者,希望即使安全性最高的信贷产品的利息也可以跑赢当前的通膨率,因为他们的资金被长时间占用,而且他们需要承担消费和生产价格未来大幅上涨让他们空手而归的风险,所以需要丰厚的利息作为回报和额外缓冲。

数十年来,公司愿意支付高于通胀率的利率,因为他们能够利用贷款建造或改造工厂,或者发布有吸引力的新产品。

如今,美联储正在大量购买新发行的政府债券和私人债券,从而大幅推高了这些债券的价格。极高的价格导致投资者为这些债券支付的每一美元资金所带来的利息收入,下降到美国近代历史上前所未有的水平。因此,消费价格指数的上涨速度超过了国债收益率,而最受欢迎的公司债券的收益率为2.3%,比通胀率高出不到一个百分点。

所以人们有理由担心,美联储在信贷市场造成的严重扭曲,可能将引发被人为低利率伤害的另外一个经济堡垒的反弹。美联储高举经济刺激的大旗,是否会促使另外一种宏观力量向错误的方向发展,进而破坏经济增长,冲击资产的价格?

美元

最有可能使美联储的招数失效的一个因素是美元大幅贬值。骏利亨德森投资基金(Janus Henderson Investors)的全球资产配置负责人、加州大学伯克利分校的金融博士阿什温·阿兰卡提出了这种观点。骏利亨德森投资基金管理的资产规模超过3,000亿美元。阿兰卡说:“政策制定者和投资者大都忽视了美元螺旋式下跌所带来的风险,他们最终会自食其果。”(阿兰卡在骏利亨德森投资基金网站上发表的一篇文章中提出了这种观点。)

他表示,虽然美元仍处在高位,但已经在贬值。他警告称,美联储的政策提高了美元更快贬值的概率。他指出,弱美元带来的问题是,外国投资者用于购买美国国债的美元很快会大幅减少。外国投资者对美国至关重要,他们为美国的巨额赤字和负债提供了资金,而且如今美国赤字飙升,更需要外国投资者。阿兰卡认为,最终的结果是停滞性通货膨胀再次出现。

阿兰卡担心的第二种风险是:美国国债海外购买者急剧减少,美联储无法掌控局面,因此放弃低息货币的政策立场,并允许利率上行以重新吸引外国投资者。笔者认为这种情况更有可能发生。在这个过程中,美国要经历后疫情时代的新一轮经济衰退,因为借款成本增加会抑制商业投资,而且为了控制通货膨胀,美联储必须维持高利率。

正如阿兰卡所说,威胁的根源在于美联储对于“负实际利率”的依赖。近几年,美元非常强势。彭博指数(Bloomberg Index)衡量了美元兑一揽子主要货币的价值。该指数显示,过去两年,美元的价值比2012年至2015年的水平上涨了约25%。最近一次美元升值源自今年年初之前相对稳健的GDP增长和美元作为全球储备货币的地位。在这两个因素的推动下,尤其是在英国脱欧、油价暴跌和新兴市场混乱等一系列冲击导致的混乱中,美元作为一种避险货币极具吸引力。

在2018年年底之前,美联储致力于货币政策“正常化”,这意味着美联储在逐步将基准利率提高到高于通胀率的水平,从而使“实际利率”恢复到正值,并将这种政策作为几十年的常态。2018年10月下旬,10年期国债收益率上涨至超过3%,这意味着通胀调整后的收益率为正1%。之后贸易战愈演愈烈,投资者对美联储加息的恐慌导致股市暴跌,迫使美联储改变了政策方向。新冠疫情促使美联储主席杰罗姆·鲍威尔更加坚定地承诺,至少在2022年之前,美联储将维持零利率。

这种低息信贷政策使10年期国债的收益率下降到0.66%,为60年来的最低水平。1月和2月的通货膨胀率为2.4%,在疫情最严重的时期通胀率一度大幅下跌,后来开始上升,到8月达到1.3%。所以10年期国债收益率减去通货膨胀率得出的实际利率深陷负区间,至少为-0.6%甚至更低。

贬值的美元正在做出反击。自5月以来,美元兑主要货币持续贬值,从疫情之前的高点下跌超过6%,比2019年的平均水平下跌了5.4%。我们无法确定导致美元贬值的所有因素,但严重衰退和外国投资者对美国联邦负债骤增的谨慎情绪,无疑是部分原因。但阿兰卡认为,美元贬值的根本原因在于负实际利率。

阿兰卡说:“实际情况是,美元贬值导致以美元结算的外国进口商品变得更昂贵,因此美国消费者和公司能够买得起的德国汽车和法国红酒与香水越来越少。”所以,在美国销售这些商品的海外公司赚取的美钞越来越少。阿兰卡补充说,大部分现金都被重新投入到非常安全的国债。如今,外国投资者手中的美元越来越少,而与此同时,美国的赤字预计在2020年一年内,将从不到1万亿美元骤增到3.4万亿美元,从2021年到2023年赤字将达到4.4万亿美元。

进出口

从进口和赤字占国民收入的比重发生的变化可以看出,外国投资者赚取的美钞和美国政府需要的借款之间存在巨大缺口。2018年和2019年,美国进口的GDP比重平均约为2.5%,赤字的比重约为4.5%,比进口高出2个百分点。2020年,进口比重保持稳定,但预算赤字的GDP占比骤增至17%,比进口高出14个百分点。

负实际利率使美元更难吸引有海外储蓄的基金和个人,因为投资美元证券的回报率甚至无法与通胀率持平,所以他们会增加对本国的投资,或者投资欧元或日元证券。结果就是对美国国债的需求下降。对美国政府债券的需求也会陷入低迷:外国投资者投资墨西哥、巴西或印尼发行的以美元计价的债券,能够获得更高的收益。这些国家的债券收益率在2.2%至3.8%之间。

如果美元继续贬值,从海外进口的商品价格会越来越高,而且美国将向市场发行价值数万亿美元的国债,但外国投资者手头可以用来购买美国国债的美元将越来越少。截至6月,外国投资者共持有6.2万亿美元的美国联邦债务,约占债务总量的三分之一,是美国公民持有的联邦债务的90%。(作为经济刺激计划的一部分,美联储持有的国债,已经达到所有未清偿国债的17%。)

通货膨胀

超低利率导致的美元贬值会加剧阿兰卡所说的“输入型通货膨胀”。

阿兰卡说:“美联储的政策立场所带来的一个严重风险是,进口商品价格上涨将导致通胀率上涨,但美联储并没有上调利率以维持美元稳定。相反,实际利率仍然深陷负区间。”事实上,美联储已经宣布,会允许通货膨胀率上涨,不会加息。所以,美国消费和生产价格的上涨速度,必定会超过国债收益率,使得美国国债越来越难吸引外国投资者。这会导致恶性循环:美元持续贬值,美国人购买的外国进口商品越来越少。阿兰卡预测美元会出现螺旋式下跌,大幅减少外国投资者购买美国国债的数量,而美国要在避免危机的情况下维持巨额借款,离不开外国投资者。

危机会是什么情形?重要的是不要夸大可能存在的风险。斯坦福大学(Stanford University)的著名国际经济学家马特奥·马基奥里说:“我不会根据美元的短期波动进行推断。例如,关于美元,有许多危言耸听的说法,认为短期内美元会出现大幅波动,我认为这种观点有些过于夸张。然而,美元在国际货币体系中的地位,存在一些至关重要的长期问题。美国联邦债务的快速增加是一个风险因素。另外一个因素是这些债务被外国投资者大量持有。”他认为这些因素并不是直接威胁,而是长期风险。

市场还是美联储?

阿兰卡认为一记重拳随时可能击出。他说,随着外国投资者撤离,美国人将不得不自掏腰包填补空缺,额外投入数万亿美元储蓄购买国债。可供公司使用的储蓄资金会减少。现在无法确定赤字对未来利率的影响,因为美联储可能采取更多措施,人为将基准利率维持在较低水平,这种态度会降低所有债券的收益率。无论如何,政府举债会排挤掉经济增长必不可少的私人资本,与此同时,美元贬值将加剧通货膨胀。结果就是再次发生停滞性通货膨胀,重现上世纪70年代发生在美国和在日本持续20多年的景象。

但还可能会出现另外一个结果。美元严重贬值,因此美联储选择通过加息抑制通货膨胀和使美元升值。当然,加息的迹象会使股市陷入恐慌,而且货币紧缩政策将让美国再次陷入衰退。但这时候发挥主导作用的将是市场而不是美联储。而我们迫切需要的外国投资者又会大量持有美国的避险货币,因为美元不仅是全世界最安全的资产,还能再次给投资者带来丰厚的回报。(yabo88ios)

翻译:刘进龙

审校:汪皓

让我们梳理一下当前的经济形势。首先,美联储开始采用一种之前从未尝试过的大胆策略,希望为受到新冠疫情打击的美国经济重新注入活力,并支撑从股票到住房等各种商品的价格。美联储的计划核心是让短期利率和长期收益率曲线低于通胀水平。美联储表示,超低成本的借款将吸引公司投资新工厂和晶圆厂,提高生产效率,刺激增长,并支持那些虽然产出不高但收益率远超国债的资产,使其能够维持高估值。

利率

美联储的立场得到了华尔街和美国企业界的广泛赞扬。但这也引发了一个令人不安的问题:利率如果由市场规范,给投资者带来的回报,通常会跑赢物价的整体趋势。这其中确有道理。银行和对冲基金等大型贷款机构,以及购买公司债券的投资者,希望即使安全性最高的信贷产品的利息也可以跑赢当前的通膨率,因为他们的资金被长时间占用,而且他们需要承担消费和生产价格未来大幅上涨让他们空手而归的风险,所以需要丰厚的利息作为回报和额外缓冲。

数十年来,公司愿意支付高于通胀率的利率,因为他们能够利用贷款建造或改造工厂,或者发布有吸引力的新产品。

如今,美联储正在大量购买新发行的政府债券和私人债券,从而大幅推高了这些债券的价格。极高的价格导致投资者为这些债券支付的每一美元资金所带来的利息收入,下降到美国近代历史上前所未有的水平。因此,消费价格指数的上涨速度超过了国债收益率,而最受欢迎的公司债券的收益率为2.3%,比通胀率高出不到一个百分点。

所以人们有理由担心,美联储在信贷市场造成的严重扭曲,可能将引发被人为低利率伤害的另外一个经济堡垒的反弹。美联储高举经济刺激的大旗,是否会促使另外一种宏观力量向错误的方向发展,进而破坏经济增长,冲击资产的价格?

美元

最有可能使美联储的招数失效的一个因素是美元大幅贬值。骏利亨德森投资基金(Janus Henderson Investors)的全球资产配置负责人、加州大学伯克利分校的金融博士阿什温·阿兰卡提出了这种观点。骏利亨德森投资基金管理的资产规模超过3,000亿美元。阿兰卡说:“政策制定者和投资者大都忽视了美元螺旋式下跌所带来的风险,他们最终会自食其果。”(阿兰卡在骏利亨德森投资基金网站上发表的一篇文章中提出了这种观点。)

他表示,虽然美元仍处在高位,但已经在贬值。他警告称,美联储的政策提高了美元更快贬值的概率。他指出,弱美元带来的问题是,外国投资者用于购买美国国债的美元很快会大幅减少。外国投资者对美国至关重要,他们为美国的巨额赤字和负债提供了资金,而且如今美国赤字飙升,更需要外国投资者。阿兰卡认为,最终的结果是停滞性通货膨胀再次出现。

阿兰卡担心的第二种风险是:美国国债海外购买者急剧减少,美联储无法掌控局面,因此放弃低息货币的政策立场,并允许利率上行以重新吸引外国投资者。笔者认为这种情况更有可能发生。在这个过程中,美国要经历后疫情时代的新一轮经济衰退,因为借款成本增加会抑制商业投资,而且为了控制通货膨胀,美联储必须维持高利率。

正如阿兰卡所说,威胁的根源在于美联储对于“负实际利率”的依赖。近几年,美元非常强势。彭博指数(Bloomberg Index)衡量了美元兑一揽子主要货币的价值。该指数显示,过去两年,美元的价值比2012年至2015年的水平上涨了约25%。最近一次美元升值源自今年年初之前相对稳健的GDP增长和美元作为全球储备货币的地位。在这两个因素的推动下,尤其是在英国脱欧、油价暴跌和新兴市场混乱等一系列冲击导致的混乱中,美元作为一种避险货币极具吸引力。

在2018年年底之前,美联储致力于货币政策“正常化”,这意味着美联储在逐步将基准利率提高到高于通胀率的水平,从而使“实际利率”恢复到正值,并将这种政策作为几十年的常态。2018年10月下旬,10年期国债收益率上涨至超过3%,这意味着通胀调整后的收益率为正1%。之后贸易战愈演愈烈,投资者对美联储加息的恐慌导致股市暴跌,迫使美联储改变了政策方向。新冠疫情促使美联储主席杰罗姆·鲍威尔更加坚定地承诺,至少在2022年之前,美联储将维持零利率。

这种低息信贷政策使10年期国债的收益率下降到0.66%,为60年来的最低水平。1月和2月的通货膨胀率为2.4%,在疫情最严重的时期通胀率一度大幅下跌,后来开始上升,到8月达到1.3%。所以10年期国债收益率减去通货膨胀率得出的实际利率深陷负区间,至少为-0.6%甚至更低。

贬值的美元正在做出反击。自5月以来,美元兑主要货币持续贬值,从疫情之前的高点下跌超过6%,比2019年的平均水平下跌了5.4%。我们无法确定导致美元贬值的所有因素,但严重衰退和外国投资者对美国联邦负债骤增的谨慎情绪,无疑是部分原因。但阿兰卡认为,美元贬值的根本原因在于负实际利率。

阿兰卡说:“实际情况是,美元贬值导致以美元结算的外国进口商品变得更昂贵,因此美国消费者和公司能够买得起的德国汽车和法国红酒与香水越来越少。”所以,在美国销售这些商品的海外公司赚取的美钞越来越少。阿兰卡补充说,大部分现金都被重新投入到非常安全的国债。如今,外国投资者手中的美元越来越少,而与此同时,美国的赤字预计在2020年一年内,将从不到1万亿美元骤增到3.4万亿美元,从2021年到2023年赤字将达到4.4万亿美元。

进出口

从进口和赤字占国民收入的比重发生的变化可以看出,外国投资者赚取的美钞和美国政府需要的借款之间存在巨大缺口。2018年和2019年,美国进口的GDP比重平均约为2.5%,赤字的比重约为4.5%,比进口高出2个百分点。2020年,进口比重保持稳定,但预算赤字的GDP占比骤增至17%,比进口高出14个百分点。

负实际利率使美元更难吸引有海外储蓄的基金和个人,因为投资美元证券的回报率甚至无法与通胀率持平,所以他们会增加对本国的投资,或者投资欧元或日元证券。结果就是对美国国债的需求下降。对美国政府债券的需求也会陷入低迷:外国投资者投资墨西哥、巴西或印尼发行的以美元计价的债券,能够获得更高的收益。这些国家的债券收益率在2.2%至3.8%之间。

如果美元继续贬值,从海外进口的商品价格会越来越高,而且美国将向市场发行价值数万亿美元的国债,但外国投资者手头可以用来购买美国国债的美元将越来越少。截至6月,外国投资者共持有6.2万亿美元的美国联邦债务,约占债务总量的三分之一,是美国公民持有的联邦债务的90%。(作为经济刺激计划的一部分,美联储持有的国债,已经达到所有未清偿国债的17%。)

通货膨胀

超低利率导致的美元贬值会加剧阿兰卡所说的“输入型通货膨胀”。

阿兰卡说:“美联储的政策立场所带来的一个严重风险是,进口商品价格上涨将导致通胀率上涨,但美联储并没有上调利率以维持美元稳定。相反,实际利率仍然深陷负区间。”事实上,美联储已经宣布,会允许通货膨胀率上涨,不会加息。所以,美国消费和生产价格的上涨速度,必定会超过国债收益率,使得美国国债越来越难吸引外国投资者。这会导致恶性循环:美元持续贬值,美国人购买的外国进口商品越来越少。阿兰卡预测美元会出现螺旋式下跌,大幅减少外国投资者购买美国国债的数量,而美国要在避免危机的情况下维持巨额借款,离不开外国投资者。

危机会是什么情形?重要的是不要夸大可能存在的风险。斯坦福大学(Stanford University)的著名国际经济学家马特奥·马基奥里说:“我不会根据美元的短期波动进行推断。例如,关于美元,有许多危言耸听的说法,认为短期内美元会出现大幅波动,我认为这种观点有些过于夸张。然而,美元在国际货币体系中的地位,存在一些至关重要的长期问题。美国联邦债务的快速增加是一个风险因素。另外一个因素是这些债务被外国投资者大量持有。”他认为这些因素并不是直接威胁,而是长期风险。

市场还是美联储?

阿兰卡认为一记重拳随时可能击出。他说,随着外国投资者撤离,美国人将不得不自掏腰包填补空缺,额外投入数万亿美元储蓄购买国债。可供公司使用的储蓄资金会减少。现在无法确定赤字对未来利率的影响,因为美联储可能采取更多措施,人为将基准利率维持在较低水平,这种态度会降低所有债券的收益率。无论如何,政府举债会排挤掉经济增长必不可少的私人资本,与此同时,美元贬值将加剧通货膨胀。结果就是再次发生停滞性通货膨胀,重现上世纪70年代发生在美国和在日本持续20多年的景象。

但还可能会出现另外一个结果。美元严重贬值,因此美联储选择通过加息抑制通货膨胀和使美元升值。当然,加息的迹象会使股市陷入恐慌,而且货币紧缩政策将让美国再次陷入衰退。但这时候发挥主导作用的将是市场而不是美联储。而我们迫切需要的外国投资者又会大量持有美国的避险货币,因为美元不仅是全世界最安全的资产,还能再次给投资者带来丰厚的回报。(yabo88ios)

翻译:刘进龙

审校:汪皓

Let's take stock. To start with, the Federal Reserve has embarked on a daring, never-before-tried strategy to recharge the COVID-stricken economy and support prices of everything from stocks to houses. The Fed's plan centers on holding short-term interest rates, and possibly a long stretch of the yield curve, below the level of inflation. Supercheap borrowing, the Fed reckons, will entice companies to invest in new plants and fabs, spurring productivity and growth, and supporting assets that may not yield much, but they'd beat Treasurys by such a wide margin that they sustain their lofty valuations.

Interest rates

The Fed's stance is winning widespread praise from Wall Street and corporate America. But it also raises a nagging issue: Interest rates, left to the market, typically give investors a return that exceeds the trend in overall prices, often by a lot. That makes sense. Big lenders such as banks and hedge funds, and folks who buy corporate bonds, want interest payments that are well above today’s pace of inflation even on the safest credits, as payment—an extra cushion—for tying up their money for years and shouldering the risk that unforeseen future spikes in consumer and producer prices could wipe out their gains.

For decades, companies have willingly paid several points over inflation because they can make much more using that money to build or retool factories or launch winning new products.

Now the Fed is buying such a gigantic portion of all newly issued government and private bonds that it’s relentlessly pushing up their prices. Those super-high prices have shrunk the cents in interest that investors collect for every dollar they're paying for the bonds to lows never before witnessed in modern U.S. history. Hence, the consumer price index is now rising faster than what Treasurys are yielding, and top-rated corporate bonds are offering 2.3%, beating inflation by less than a point.

So it's logical to worry that by creating a huge distortion in the credit markets, the Fed could trigger a backlash from another bulwark of the economy that's damaged by artificially low rates. By pulling hard on the stimulus lever, will the Fed push another set of macro forces in motion that go in the wrong direction, undermining growth and hammering asset prices?

The dollar

The factor most likely to blunt the Fed's offensive is a steep fall in the dollar. That's the view of Ashwin Alankar, head of Global Asset Allocation at Janus Henderson Investors, a firm with over $300 billion under management, and a Ph.D. in finance from Berkeley. "Policymakers and investors are mostly overlooking the risk of a downward spiral in the dollar at their own peril," says Alankar. (Alankar makes his case in this excellent piece on Janus Henderson's website.)

Alankar notes that the dollar is already declining, albeit from high levels, and cautions the Fed's policies lift the probability that drop will accelerate. The problem posed by a weak greenback, he argues, is that the foreign investors who've been essential to funding our big deficits and debt, and whom we need more than ever now that shortfalls are exploding, will soon have far fewer dollars to buy our Treasurys. Alankar thinks the endgame could be the return of stagflation.

A second risk that Alankar also fears, and this writer deems more probable: The pullback in overseas buyers of Treasuries is so violent that the Fed loses its grip, ditching its easy money stance and allowing a jump in rates to lure back foreign investors. In the process, the U.S. endures a new, post-pandemic recession as rising borrowing costs curb business investment, and the need to tame inflation forces the Fed to keep rates high.

As Alankar points out, it's the Fed's reliance on "negative real rates" that poses the threat. In recent years, the dollar's been extremely strong. According to the Bloomberg Index that measures its value versus a basket of major currencies, the dollar in the past two years has hovered roughly 25% above its level from 2012 to 2015. Its recent buoyancy arises from relatively robust GDP growth through early this year and its status as the world's reserve currency. That confluence has made the greenback especially attractive as a safe haven in the turbulence caused by shocks such as Brexit, the collapse in oil prices, and turmoil in emerging markets.

Until late 2018, the Fed was "normalizing," meaning that it was gradually raising its benchmark rate to exceed the pace of inflation, hence orchestrating a return to positive "real rates" that have been the norm for decades. In late October 2018, the 10-year Treasury yield rose to over 3%, meaning that the inflation-adjusted number reached a positive 1%. Then, the worsening trade war and a selloff in stocks—unleashed by investor panic over those rising rates—prompted the Fed to reverse course. The pandemic propelled Chairman Jerome Powell to double down, pledging to hold the Fed funds rate at zero through at least 2022.

That cheap-credit policy has dropped the yield on 10-year Treasurys to 0.66%, the lowest reading in 60 years. Inflation was running at 2.4% in January and February and, after collapsing in the darkest days of the pandemic, is on the rise, hitting 1.3% in August. So the real rate, the 10-year yield minus inflation, is in negative territory by at least 0.6% and likely even more.

It's a falling dollar that's delivering the counterpunch. Since May, its value has dropped against that of major currencies, declining over 6% from its pre-pandemic high and settling 5.4% below its average for 2019. It's impossible to identify all the factors responsible for the pullback: The deep recession and foreign investors' wariness over the gigantic increases in U.S. federal debt doubtless are contributing. But for Alankar, the downward pull comes principally from those subzero real rates.

"What's happening is that the dollar's weakness is making foreign imports more expensive in dollars, so that American consumers and companies can afford fewer German cars and French wines and perfume," says Alankar. Hence, overseas companies that sell those products stateside are collecting fewer dollars. Alankar adds that most of the cash gets recycled into super-safe Treasurys. Now foreigners are amassing fewer dollars at the same time our deficit, in a single year, has exploded from just under $1 trillion to a projected $3.4 trillion in 2020, with $4.4 trillion in shortfalls to come from 2021 to 2023.

Imports and exports

The exploding gap between the dollars foreigners are reaping and the dollars the U.S. government needs to borrow is illustrated by the shift in the shares of national income going to imports versus deficits. In 2018 and 2019, the imports averaged roughly 2.5 points of GDP, trailing our 4.5% deficits by two points. In 2020, the share of imports is stable, while the budget shortfall has swelled to 17% of GDP, dwarfing the imports share by over 14 points.

Negative real rates also make dollars less attractive to funds and folks with savings abroad, so they will increasingly invest in their home countries, or invest elsewhere in euro or yen securities, because our returns don't even match inflation. The upshot is lower demand for U.S. Treasurys. Also curbing demand for our debt: Foreign investors can get much higher yields on dollar-denominated debt issued by Mexico, Brazil, or Indonesia. Their bonds are all yielding from 2.2% to 3.8%.

If the dollar keeps falling, products from abroad will get more and more expensive, and foreigners will have fewer and fewer dollars to buy the fresh trillions in Treasurys flooding the market. As of June, foreigners held $6.2 trillion in U.S. federal debt, almost one-third of the total and 90% of the amount owned by U.S. citizens. (As part of its stimulus plan, the Fed itself has accumulated 17% of all outstanding Treasuries.)

Inflation

A falling dollar, dragged down by ultralow rates, will stoke what Alankar calls "imported inflation."

"The big danger that stance creates is that higher import prices will lead to higher inflation, yet rates don't rise to stabilize the dollar. Instead, real rates stay negative," says Alankar. Indeed, the Fed has declared that it will allow inflation, if it picks up, to run hot without raising rates. So U.S. consumer and producer prices are destined to rise faster than the yield on Treasurys, making our bonds increasingly less enticing to foreign investors. That could create a vicious cycle: As the dollar keeps falling, Americans buy fewer and fewer foreign goods. Alankar foresees the possibility of a downward spiral in the dollar that would severely curtail the foreign purchases of Treasurys sorely needed to sustain our gigantic borrowing without causing a crisis.

What would that crisis look like? It's important not to overstate the potential perils. "I would not extrapolate from short-term movements in the dollar," says Matteo Maggiori of Stanford University, a top international economist. "For example, a lot of dollar alarmism for a few percentage movement in the short run seems to me overstated. However, there are some important long-term questions about the dollar's role in the international monetary system. The rapid increase in U.S. federal debt is one risk factor. The large foreign holdings of this debt is another." Maggiori views these factors not as an immediate threat but as long-term risks.

The market or the Fed?

Alankar believes a haymaker is bunching its fist and could strike at any time. As foreigners pull back, he says, Americans will be forced to fill the breach by plowing trillions more of their savings into Treasuries. The pool of those savings available to businesses would shrink. It's unclear what effect that shortage would have on future rates, because the Fed might take more extraordinary measures to hold its benchmark artificially low, a posture that could depress yields on all bonds. In any case, government borrowing would "crowd out" much of the private capital needed to fund new growth, at the same time the falling dollar feeds inflation. Result: stagflation reminiscent of the U.S. in the 1970s, and Japan for more than two decades.

But another outcome is also possible. The dollar's fall could become so severe that the Fed throws up its hands and hikes rates to wrestle down inflation and boost the dollar. Of course, the stock market freaks out at the very hint of higher rates, and the tightening would throw the U.S. into another recession. But the market, not the Fed, would be back in charge. And the foreign investors we need so desperately would return en masse to the U.S. haven that's not only the safest in the world but also one that is free to offer a decent return once again.

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