Will Russian Sanctions Lead China to Sell US Debt?
Russia's invasion of Ukraine led western nations to impose the most draconian economic sanctions in the modern era. The Russian stock and bond markets have collapsed, along with Russia's currency, the ruble.
Many investors fear that China, which has always wanted control of Taiwan, will use the mayhem of the moment to take it. Obviously, this would create even more uncertainty and mayhem, but China is more involved in global finance than Russia. The West's response to Russia has not gone unnoticed, but many fear that even if China doesn't invade, it may preemptively sell its roughly $1.1 trillion in US government debt to avoid financial retaliation. The fear is that this will cause US interest rates to soar and the US economy to suffer.
We think this fear is unwarranted. Yes, inflation and Fed tightening are likely to push up rates in the next few years. This is what the markets should focus on, not a Chinese sell-off of US Treasury debt, which would have little impact.
First, total US debt is roughly $30 trillion. If China sold all its debt, it is only 3.6% of all outstanding US debt. A shock to the system maybe, on the day it happens, but just a temporary shock, not a death blow.
Second, consider what's happened to our budget deficit the last couple of years. Right before COVID, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the baseline deficits for Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021, combined, would be a two-year total of $2.0 trillion. Instead, due to COVID and related shutdowns, the two-year deficit totaled $5.9 trillion. That's $3.9 trillion in extra deficits over a two-year period. And the 10-year Treasury yield is essentially where it was right before COVID hit.
Third, the Federal Reserve shrunk its balance sheet by almost $700 billion (effectively selling debt securities) in 2018 and the first eight months of 2019. Guess what? Interest rates fell.