So, yes, it does look like Obama, Boehner, Pelosi, and Reid should have been on the line to Beijing before beginning their most recent spat. Yet historical data reveal a surprising trend. In July 2011, China set a record with its $1.3149 trillion of Treasuries. Then, over the course of the last two years, Beijing offloaded $37.6 billion of these instruments.
In short, the Chinese have not in fact been funding the Federal deficit since the middle of 2011. And during that period, the Federal government was able to continue operating, global markets did not panic, and rates on Treasuries declined. Significantly, China decreased its holdings at a time when the U.S. Treasury increased its borrowing from abroad, by $1.749 trillion in 2011 and by $821 billion last year.
All this is not to say the U.S. should run budget deficits—it definitely should not—but it does tell us that we do not need the Chinese to do so.
Of course, Washington’s statistics cannot capture China’s purchases of Treasuries through nominees. From time to time, there is unusual activity in foreign debt markets, notably London, indicating the Chinese are trying to hide purchases and sales. There is, however, nothing to suggest that, over time, their transactions behind the screen do not track the ones out in the open.