So says David Andolfatto (via Mark Thoma):
I believe that the decline in real rates on U.S. treasuries reflects a steady change in how agents and agencies around the world want to structure their wealth portfolios. There has been a massive substitution away from many asset classes into U.S. treasuries; and it is this fundamental market force that is driving real interest rates lower.
The phenomenon began in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Japanese stock market. Then Mexico in 1994, the Asian crisis 1997-98, Russia in 1998, and Brazil in 1999; see Bernanke (2005). Investors became rationally pessimistic about the returns to investing in these countries, as well as similar countries that had not yet experienced crisis. The natural effect of this would be capital outflows from these countries into relative safe havens, like the United States.I wrote about this over a year ago, in response to a similar argument by Brad DeLong. You can read that post for more details, but the gist is that Kindleberger argued that in a crisis a hegemon is needed to stabilize the international system by providing five public goods: a market for distress (unsalable) goods, lender of last resort and provider of liquidity into the global financial system, a stable system of exchange rates, macroeconomic coordination, and countercyclical lending.
The basic thesis here is very much related to what Ricardo Caballero calls a "global asset shortage."
But what if there's a 6th? What if the hegemon should also create large amounts of highly-rated financial assets that firms can keep on their books without worrying about default?
In a sense, such a role is already encapsulated in Kindleberger's five. It would, in a sense, provide a market for distress goods, which in this case is speculative finance. If these assets are heavily-traded enough an increase in their supply could also constitute a form of liquidity. And they could be used to fund a program of countercyclical lending, by borrowing funds from skittish investors and channeling them to needy borrowers.
As Mark Blyth and Matthias Matthijs argue in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Germany is either incapable or unwilling to play this role in Europe. (I'd argue both.) In which case the U.S. should step in and be more aggressive. The Federal Reserve has taken some steps in that direction, opening up swap lines with most major central banks worldwide, and lending directly to foreign banks. But many of those programs have ended. It's not clear that the Fed is doing much to stabilize Europe now. Meanwhile, the federal government has no appetite for such a role.
Put all this together and it's hard to escape the belief that things are going to get worse before they get better. The U.S. may be relatively insulated from a European collapse, but that doesn't mean we're perfectly insulated. And plenty of other places are much more exposed. As the systems level, then, unless the U.S. steps up instability is likely to worsen.