The tiny country of Belgium – my beloved hunting grounds for three years a while back – with a GDP of $484 billion, a country which you can cross by bicycle in a single day if you’re really fit, a country that became famous to the chagrin of some people because it did just fine for a couple of years without a national government – well, that tiny speck of land is starting to grow an enormous mountain of US Treasury Securities.
In February, according to data just released by the US Treasury Department, it added $30.9 billion, taking its mountain of Treasuries to the phenomenal level of $341.2 billion, or about 70% of its GDP.
It put that speck of land with 11 million people in third place, behind export powerhouse China ($1.27 trillion) and former export powerhouse and now money-printing powerhouse Japan ($1.21 trillion), the second and third largest economies in the world.
From August last year, when an already lofty $166.8 billion in Treasuries were held in Belgium, holdings have soared by 105%! Why this sudden jump?
What the heck is going on in Belgium?
It has a vibrant export sector – right away, I can think of superb chocolates, addictive beers, and many other products. But have dollar-denominated sales multiplied umpteen times overnight in a miraculous fashion? Nope. Nothing happens quickly in Belgium. Getting even something minor through the bureaucracy, as we found out, requires superhuman patience, finely honed finesse, and a surprising amount of money. Nope, it couldn’t be anything having to do with Belgium’s real economy.
Leaves the other option: that Belgium has become a financial center for Treasuries owned by other countries, or that it at least has become a transit point for them.
Over the same period since August, Luxembourg, a true financial center with legendary opaqueness, saw its Treasury holdings decline from $143.8 billion to $136.8 billion. Ireland, where Corporate America registers much of its money to avoid US taxes, has also seen Treasury holdings drop since August from $120 billion to 111.4 billion.
So why Belgium? Mystery swirls around it for now. But there are some clues….
One of them is called Euroclear. It’s a big outfit. It holds €24.2 trillion ($33 trillion) in assets. Its clients include, as it says, over 2,000 global and local custodians, broker dealers, central banks, commercial and investment banks, investment managers, and supranational organizations in more than 90 countries. The total value of securities transactions it settles for them exceed €570 trillion per year. It proudly points out: “Every 6 days we settle transactions equivalent to the GDP of the EU.”
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