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The US current account deficit : how did it come about and what are the policy implications


  • P. Butzen

    (National Bank of Belgium, Research Department)

  • E. De Prest

    (National Bank of Belgium, Research Department)

  • S. Ide

    (National Bank of Belgium, Research Department)

  • H. Zimmer

    (National Bank of Belgium, Research Department)


One of the most remarkable characteristics of the world economy today is the enormous, ever worsening US balance of payments current account deficit, which reached a record level of 5.7 p.c. of GDP in 2004. This has given rise to concerns in academic and political circles regarding the sustainability of the current situation and the potential dangers for the global economy of a sudden, disorderly adjustment. The size of the US current account deficit is not only unprecedented in American post-war history, but it also seems to be exceptional from an international perspective. Moreover, the US deficit contrasts with a surplus in virtually every other region and the problem has consequently taken on a global dimension. The increase in the US current account deficit recorded in the nineties reflects an internal American shortfall in savings. Whereas the private savings-investment equilibrium was restored in 2002 and 2003, the same period saw a huge deficit in the public sector budget. The start of the new millennium brought notable changes in the way the US current account deficit was financed since investments by Asian public authorities in American government debt instruments largely took over the position previously occupied by European private foreign direct investments and investments in equities. It is sometimes put forward that the US, unlike other countries facing similar circumstances, is safeguarded from an attack on its currency because of its prominent role in the international financial system. According to an influential school of thought in economic literature, the current international system can even be seen as a “revived” Bretton Woods system. Indeed, a number of East-Asian countries, including China, use a fixed or quasi-fixed exchange rate against the dollar, which brings to mind an informal dollar standard. Although this set of circumstances has undoubtedly offered various regions in the world a number of mutual benefits during recent years, these exchange rate relations may nevertheless have caused some distortions in US spending, whereas Asian countries have to deal with a growing exchange rate risk on their official reserves. Different scenarios are conceivable to deal with the global imbalances. The results of model simulations show the huge effort required to significantly reduce the US current account deficit which highlights the scale of the problem, emphasising the need for simultaneous economic policy measures in the different economies involved. The concern over global imbalances and the development of exchange rates also feature prominently on the agenda of international forums such as the G7 or G20 meetings. In the statements issued at those meetings, the need for a common approach to tackle the global imbalances is given priority and the belief that excessive exchange rate volatility is not desirable is underlined.

Suggested Citation

  • P. Butzen & E. De Prest & S. Ide & H. Zimmer, 2005. "The US current account deficit : how did it come about and what are the policy implications," Economic Review, National Bank of Belgium, issue ii, pages 49-63, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbb:ecrart:y:2005:m:june:i:ii:p:49-63

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Michael P. Dooley & David Folkerts-Landau & Peter M. Garber, 2005. "An essay on the revived Bretton Woods system," Proceedings, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, issue Feb.
    2. Michael P. Dooley & David Folkerts-Landau & Peter Garber, 2007. "Direct Investment, Rising Real Wages and the Absorption of Excess Labor in the Periphery," NBER Chapters,in: G7 Current Account Imbalances: Sustainability and Adjustment, pages 103-132 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Nouriel Roubini & Brad Setser, 2005. "Will the Bretton Woods 2 regime unravel soon? the risk of a hard landing in 2005-2006," Proceedings, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, issue Feb.
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    More about this item


    current account imbalances; United States current account; financial flows into the United States; international monetary system;

    JEL classification:

    • F0 - International Economics - - General
    • F31 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - Foreign Exchange
    • F32 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - Current Account Adjustment; Short-term Capital Movements
    • F33 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - International Monetary Arrangements and Institutions
    • F42 - International Economics - - Macroeconomic Aspects of International Trade and Finance - - - International Policy Coordination and Transmission


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