Readers of the latest missive from Brad Setser may not realize the full implications of his numbers, so we will do the math here. Brad crunches the latest Treasury International Capital (TIC) survey from our friends at the US Treasury Department, adds some other sources, and comes up with the estimate that central banks and sovereign funds pumped over $100B back into the US financial system during the month of January. He worries about the apparent shift away from agencies — our public creditors are reluctant to prop up our crumbling housing sector — but I worry about the implication for private capital flows.
The most recent estimate for last year’s current account deficit is around $740B. To make things simple, assume it remains the same this year. (Recession at home will push it down; recession abroad, if it begins to happen, and oil prices, if they remain higher, will push it up.) If the January rate of official finance continues, it would stand at more than $1200B for the year. The difference, $460B would represent net private capital outflows from the US. If this isn’t capital flight, it’s at least a pretty substantial exodus. My instincts tell me that a full-bore capital flight is the big risk lurking in the shadows. What is the cutoff point between where we are today and a dollar crisis? The answer is, a rate of private outflow that central banks are unable or unwilling to offset. And how much is that?
We are conducting a global experiment right now to find out.