Japan overtook China in February as the biggest creditor to the U.S., regaining the place it last held at the beginning of the fiscal crisis in 2008. However, it wasn’t a case of Japan buying more than its neighbor, but rather a case of China selling more of its holdings.
In the U.S. Treasury report released Wednesday, at the end of February Japan held $1.2244 trillion of U.S. debt, vs. China’s $1.2237 trillion. The third biggest holder was Caribbean banking centers, with just $350.6 million. Japan’s nudging ahead was a function of it selling only $14.2 billion worth of debt that month, while China sold $15.4 billion. Japan now holds $13.6 billion more than it held a year ago, while China holds $49.2 billion less.
The changes reflect the different economic situations the two countries are in. As China’s economic growth slows, it needs fewer dollar assets to prevent the yuan from strengthening. Now China may need to sell dollar assets to keep the yuan from falling as capital outflows increase. In fact, China has been steadily selling U.S. government debt since November 2013, when its holdings peaked at $1.3167 trillion.
Meanwhile, Japan has been increasing its holdings of U.S. treasuries since December 2012 when Shinzo Abe was elected prime minister on a platform to reignite that country’s moribund economy by sparking inflation and weakening the yen. Since then, Japan has bought $113.2 billion of U.S. debt, pushing the yen’s value down 30%.
Of course, this whole thing needs to taken with a few caveats. The Treasury says the data in the table comes primarily from U.S.-based custodians and broker-dealers. “Since U.S. securities held in overseas custody accounts may not be attributed to the actual owners, the data may not provide a precise accounting of individual country ownership of Treasury securities.”
In addition, the Wall Street Journal reports that if you get deeper into the weeds, adding the net change in short-term obligations to long-term debt holdings, it looks like China instead of selling, actually increased its holdings by $6.783 billion. The Journal also doubted whether Japan is actually the top debt holder because the report doesn’t include transactions other countries are doing on China’s behalf, thus masking the country’s total portfolio.