I have been reading ‘The Essays of Warren Buffet: Lessons for Corporate America’. There is much gold to be mined here by the moral philosopher. Here is one important theme: the transfer of wealth from the US to the rest of the world.
In 2003 Buffet wrote:
(I)n recent years our country’s trade deficit has been force-feeding huge amounts of claims on, and ownership in, America to the rest of the world. For a time, foreign appetite for these assets readily absorbed the supply. Late in 2002, however, the world started choking on this diet, and the dollar’s value began to slide against the major currencies.
Last year we had $1.15 trillion of such honest–to-God trade and the more of this, the better. But, as noted, our country also purchased an additional $618 billion in goods and services from the rest of the world that was unreciprocated. This is a staggering figure and one that has important consequences.
The balancing item to this one-way pseudo-trade … is a transfer of wealth from the US to the rest of the world. … This force-feeding of American wealth to the rest of the world is now proceeding at the rate of $1.8 billion daily, an increase of 20% since I wrote to you last year. Consequently, other countries and their citizens now own a net of about $3 trillion of the US. A decade ago their net ownership was negligible.
Buffet goes on to project that a decade from now (in 2014) net foreign ownership of the US would amount to about $11 trillion and at 5% interest, the US would need to spend $.55 trillion annually to ‘service’ this foreign investment. With a GDP of about $18 trillion, 3% of GDP would go to the rest of the world as 'annual tribute’ for financing Americans’ overindulgences.
If the US were running a $.6 trillion current-account (trade) surplus, commentators worldwide would violently condemn our policy, viewing it as an extreme form of ‘mercantilism’…
Our spendthrift behaviour won’t, however, be tolerated indefinitely. And though it's impossible to forecast just when and how the trade problem will be resolved, it’s improbable that the resolution will foster an increase in the value of our currency relative to that of our trading partners.
In 2005 the situation continued to worsen and in 2006 Buffet notes another ‘milestone' in the deteriorating financial health of the US:
Already the prediction I made last year about one fall-out from our spending binge has come true: The ‘investment income' account of our country – positive in every previous year since 1915 – turned negative in 2006. Foreigners earned more on their US investments than we do on our investments abroad. In effect, we’ve used up our bank account and turned to our credit card. And, like everyone who gets in hock, the US will now experience ‘reverse compounding’ as we pay ever-increasing amounts of interest on interest.
This situation will only change if the US ‘massively under consumes and begins to run consistent and large trade surpluses’.
Buffet points out that the huge US budget deficits do not transfer wealth. Only when we buy more than we sell is wealth transferred to the net seller.
However, when we also borrow money to buy more than we sell, we are hastening our financial demise, and that is what we see today.
And let us not even mention what road we are taking if we don’t even borrow but merely print the money out of thin air…
I leave you with this video about the opening of the world’s tallest skyscraper in Dubai, the ‘Burj Dubai’. It is an impressive architectural achievement and a proud symbol of Dubai’s economic power. But while I watched in awe, I couldn’t help thinking that I was witnessing possibly the most spectacular manifestation of the transfer of wealth out of the US.