James Bullard, head of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, gave a nice presentation on “The Tapering Debate” today. See the whole thing here.
One question he considers is whether the Fed balance sheet is getting scarily big. It’s certainly large by U.S. historical standards — the only time is was bigger, relative to the size of the economy, was in the 1940s.
By current international standards, however, the Fed balance sheet isn’t an outlier. In fact, Japan, Europe, and the United Kingdom all have larger central bank balance sheets, relative to their economies, than we do (FRB = Federal Reserve Bank):
The IMF’s latest Fiscal Monitor includes a colorful chart of who owns the debt of six countries with well-known debt concerns:
The debt owned by foreign investors and foreign central banks are in red and yellow; the other colors represent debt owned domestically.
Based on IMF’s accounting, the six countries come in three flavors:
The “PIG” countries. Portugal, Ireland, and Greece owe most of their debt to foreigners.That’s a key reason their shaky finances are of international concern.
Japan. It owes almost all of its debt to itself (i.e., its citizens and institutions). That’s a key reason the international community isn’t freaking out about its debt levels.
The U.S. and U.K. The two “Uniteds” owe most of their debt to themselves (including their central banks, in orange), but also owe a substantial amount to foreigners. The yellow pie slice for foreign official holdings is, of course, notably large for the United States.
Note: Such cross-country comparisons inevitably involve accounting choices. Note, for example, that the IMF includes amounts owed to the Social Security Trust Fund in the U.S. debt measure, but does not include state and local debts. The first choice arguably understates America’s reliance on foreign borrowing, while the second arguably overstates it.