What Happens When China Stops Buying Our Debt?
Of the $5 trillion rise in debt owned by the public in the past decade, $3.3 trillion was financed by foreign investors, half a trillion by U.S. individuals, half a trillion by pension funds, and the rest by banks, mutual funds, and state and local governments. Since 2000, China has increased its Treasury holdings by about $900 billion, and Japan by roughly $700 billion.
It's also possible that the recent numbers are deceiving. China has been known to funnel some of its Treasury purchases through money managers in the U.K. When it does, the Treasury counts the U.K., not China, as the owner until the data is reconciled once a year. Last March, for example, the Treasury increased China's estimated holdings of Treasuries by 30%, and the U.K.'s down by an equal dollar amount, to reflect who truly owned the assets. But it doesn't look like that's happening this time. Since July, both China and the U.K.'s Treasury holdings have declined. In fact, total foreign ownership of Treasuries fell in December by almost $20 billion -- one of the only net monthly declines in the last five years.