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Marketplace Morning Report
Raising the Debt Ceiling

Explainer: How do governments borrow and lend

Marketplace Staff Jul 26, 2011
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Stacey Vanek-Smith: In a televised speech last night, President Barack Obama brought the debt ceiling debate into our living rooms, saying some Republican lawmakers have been unreasonable.

President Barack Obama: We would risk sparking a deep economic crisis, this one caused almost entirely by Washington.

Republican Speaker of the House John Bohener spoke immediately thereafter, saying the president is asking for a blank check.

Speaker John Boehner: The president has often said we need a balanced approach, which in Washington means we spend more and you pay more.

Both men said something has to be done before August 2nd — when the U.S. Treasury says it will run out of cash and could have to default on some of its debts — namely U.S. Treasury Bonds.Our New York bureau chief Heidi Moore joins me live. Good morning Heidi!

Heidi Moore: Good morning, Stacey.

Vanek-Smith: So Heidi, treasury bonds have been one of the world’s most important investment for years — who exactly owns them?

Moore: Well, first you have to think about how a treasury bond works. It’s like a loan that you give to the U.S. government — and we love to borrow. In fact,our borrowing has gone up 90 percent in the past 10 years. So, who’s willing to lend to us — the whole world. The fed owns about 10 percent, Americans like your grandma and other people you know own about 10 percent, and the biggest chunk is owned by foreign, central banks. They hold about half of all the U.S. treasuries.

Vanek-Smith: Why do foreign countries own so much of our debt?

Moore: Well, we’ve been a safe bet. They need the dollar. It’s what’s called the reserve currency. When their currencies go up and down, all the other countries in the world keep about two-thirds of their money in dollars around, just to protect themselves. I asked Jeff Cleveland who’s an economist with Payden & Rygal, to describe our current situation.

Jeff Cleveland: “Well, what if they get antsy? What if they find they don’t want to finance U.S. treasury? So far we’re not seeing any hints of that. We continue to see purchases from global investors.

Moore: So we’re good, for now.

Vanek-Smith: Not to sound ungrateful, but why are they putting up with this?

Moore: Well, I’m glad to say we’re the only game in town. There are no other options, the only other reserve currency is the Euro, that’s about 20 percent, so they have to stick with us.

Vanek-Smith: Heidi Moore in New York. Thank you, Heidi.

Moore: Thank you, Stacey.

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