The end of privilege: A re-examination of the net foreign asset position of the US

A VoxEU article by Andy Atkeson, Jonathan Heathcote, Fabrizio Perri:

The US net foreign asset position – measuring the difference between its foreign assets and liabilities – was negative, yet small, until 2007. This column shows that since then, it has deteriorated sharply to negative 40% of GDP, mostly as a result of changes in the market value of US-owned assets abroad and foreign-owned assets in the US. These valuation effects are explained by rising US equity values disproportionately benefitting foreign owners of US firms. Whether this is beneficial for depends on whether the profit rises are due to higher productivity or lower competition.

A country’s net foreign asset position measures the value of all the assets residents own abroad minus the value of assets foreigners own in the country. It is an important statistic, because all else equal, a higher net foreign asset position means a country can expect higher future net income from abroad, and can thus plan on running larger future trade deficits. One common way to decompose changes in the net foreign asset position is to recognise that the position can improve because a country, on net, acquires additional foreign assets – i.e. it runs a current account surplus – or because the market value of existing assets owned abroad increases relative to the value of foreign-owned assets in the country.

The US has long had a negative net foreign asset position. But until 2007 it was relatively small, never exceeding 20% of US GDP. In fact, the position was surprisingly small given the US history of large and persistent current account deficits. In influential papers, Gourinchas and Rey (2007, 2014) emphasised the importance of valuation effects in shaping the dynamics of the US net foreign asset position. At the time they were writing, these revaluations seemed to move consistently in favour of the US, especially during the mid-2000s. The net effect was that the US appeared to enjoy the special privilege of being consistently able to borrow without running up much debt. Gourinchas and Rey and others argued that this privilege reflected an asymmetry in cross-country portfolios, with Americans owning lots of direct investment and portfolio equity assets abroad – whose value tended to rise over time – while US liabilities consisted disproportionately of low return US government bonds. 

Our paper (Atkeson et al. 2022) updates the history of the US net foreign asset position, using data assembled by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the US Treasury in the Financial Accounts of the United States. We find that a lot has changed in the last 15 years. First and most notably, the US net foreign asset position has deteriorated very sharply, from negative 5% of US GDP in 2007, to negative 65% of US GDP by the third quarter of 2021. Such a large negative net position is unprecedented. What has driven this decline? What are the welfare implications for Americans?”

Continue reading here.

Posted by at 7:36 AM

Labels: Macro Demystified


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