Abstract:  This paper analyzes movements in the U.S. external imbalance over the 1980s from the perspective of the capital account. It considers the empirical evidence on two competing hypotheses about the causes of the large and persistent net capital inflow during the decade: one that the capital inflow was induced by a substantial increase in the expected rate of return on real fixed investment in the United States relative to other countries, and the other that strong U.S. fiscal stimulus and a declining private savings rate boosted demand for credit in the United States.
The empirical evidence that we review on this score include the pattern and composition of capital inflows, trends in the components of U.S. domestic saving and investment, and movements in U.S. relative to foreign rates of return across different types of real and financial assets. The evidence strongly supports the view that the net capital inflow resulted from an increase in demand for credit, and not to any significant degree from an increase in the relative rate of return on real fixed investment in the United States.
We also consider the sustainability of the U.S. external imbalance. Available empirical evidence on this score suggests that over the short to medium term at least, continued large U.S. external deficits could be absorbed manageably into foreign portfolios. Nevertheless, if those deficits continue to finance U.S. government and private consumption rather than the increased rate of domestic investment that would be needed eventually to service the associated external debt, they are not sustainable in the long run.
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Last update: November 10, 2008