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Foreign Investment in U.S. Securities

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Publication Date: March 2009

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32462

Topic: Economics (Economic relations)


Foreign capital inflows are playing an important role in the U.S. economy by bridging the gap between domestic supplies of and demand for capital. Foreign investors now hold more than 55% of the publicly-held and -traded U.S. Treasury securities. The large foreign accumulation of U.S. securities has spurred some observers to argue that this large foreign presence in U.S. financial markets increases the risk of a financial crisis, whether as a result of the uncoordinated actions of market participants or by a coordinated withdrawal from U.S. financial markets by foreign investors for economic or political reasons.

Congress likely would find itself embroiled in any such financial crisis through its direct role in conducting fiscal policy and in its indirect role in the conduct of monetary policy through its supervisory responsibility over the Federal Reserve. Such a coordinated withdrawal seems highly unlikely, particularly since the vast majority of the investors are private entities that presumably would find it difficult to coordinate a withdrawal. It is uncertain, though, what types of events could provoke a coordinated withdrawal from U.S. securities markets. Short of a financial crisis, events that cause foreign investors to curtail or limit their purchases of U.S. securities likely would complicate efforts to finance budget deficits in the current environment without such foreign actions having an impact on U.S. interest rates, domestic investment, and the long-term rate of growth. This report analyzes the extent of foreign portfolio investment in the U.S. economy and assesses the economic conditions that are attracting such investment and the impact such investments are having on the economy.

Economists generally attribute this rise in foreign investment to comparatively favorable returns on investments, a surplus of saving in other areas of the world, the well-developed U.S. financial system, and the overall stability and rate of growth of the U.S. economy. Capital inflows also allow the United States to finance its trade deficit because foreigners are willing to lend to the United States in the form of exchanging the sale of goods, represented by U.S. imports, for such U.S. assets as U.S. businesses and real estate, stocks, bonds, and U.S. Treasury securities. Despite improvements in capital mobility, foreign capital inflows do not fully replace or compensate for a lack of domestic sources of capital. Economic analysis shows that a nation's rate of capital formation, or domestic investment, seems to have been linked primarily to its domestic rate of saving.

To date, the world economy has benefitted from the stimulus provided by the nation's combination of fiscal and monetary policies and trade deficit. Over the long run, however, concerns are growing that U.S. economic policies and the accompanying large deficit in its international trade accounts could have a negative impact on global economic developments, especially for developing countries.

This report relies on a comprehensive set of data on capital flows, represented by purchases and sales of U.S. government securities and U.S. and foreign corporate stocks, bonds, into and out of the United States, that is reported by the Treasury Department on a monthly basis. This report will be updated as events warrant.