Interactive Map: The Flow of International Trade
Click on a country to see its share of trade alone, or spin/navigate the globe by using your mouse.
Interactive: Mapping the Flow of International Trade
The interactive visualization you see in this post was created by data visualization expert Max Galka from the Metrocosm blog. (Also check out his new project, Blueshift, which allows users to upload data and visualize it on maps with no coding required.)
Trade is an essential part of economic prosperity, but how much do you know about global trade?
Today’s visualization helps to map international trade on a 3D globe, plotting the exchange of goods between countries. It enables the abstract concept of trade to become more tactile, and at the same time the visuals make it easier to absorb information.
Exploring the Map
The great thing about interactive maps is that they allow you to take control.
Here are a few things we found particularly interesting, as we scanned through the map:
- When looking at the globe as a whole, trade is concentrated into obvious hubs. The United States, Europe, and China/Japan are the most evident ones, and they are all lit up with color.
- There are also obvious have-nots. Take a look at most of the countries in Africa, or click on an individual country like North Korea to see a lack of international trade.
- In fact, North Korea is completely vacuous, except for one lonely dot floating to China every so often. After taking a quick look at the data, it seems China takes in over 60% of North Korea’s exports, which are mostly raw materials such as coal, iron ore, or pig iron.
- Now click on South Korea, and the situation is completely different. By the way, South Korea exports $583 billion of goods per year, while the hermit nation does just $3.1 billion per year.
- This map also shows how dependent some countries are on others for trade. Look at Canada, a country that sends close to 75% of its exports to the United States. Mexico has a similar situation, where it does most of its business with the U.S. as well.
- This is a stark contrast to Cuba, which doesn’t trade enough with any one partner to have it visualized on this scale at all. Cuba has exports of only $1.7 billion, and its largest trading partner is China, which only takes in $311 million of goods per year.
Want to see more on international trade? Check out this set of maps that shows China’s rising dominance in trade, or the flow of oil around the world.
Which Countries Hold the Most U.S. Debt?
Foreign investors hold $7.3 trillion of the national U.S. debt. These holdings declined 6% in 2022 amid a strong U.S. dollar and rising rates.
Which Countries Hold the Most U.S. Debt in 2022?
Today, America owes foreign investors of its national debt $7.3 trillion.
These are in the form of Treasury securities, some of the most liquid assets worldwide. Central banks use them for foreign exchange reserves and private investors flock to them during flights to safety thanks to their perceived low default risk.
Beyond these reasons, foreign investors may buy Treasuries as a store of value. They are often used as collateral during certain international trade transactions, or countries can use them to help manage exchange rate policy. For example, countries may buy Treasuries to protect their currency’s exchange rate from speculation.
In the above graphic, we show the foreign holders of the U.S. national debt using data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Top Foreign Holders of U.S. Debt
With $1.1 trillion in Treasury holdings, Japan is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
Japan surpassed China as the top holder in 2019 as China shed over $250 billion, or 30% of its holdings in four years.
This bond offloading by China is the one way the country can manage the yuan’s exchange rate. This is because if it sells dollars, it can buy the yuan when the currency falls. At the same time, China doesn’t solely use the dollar to manage its currency—it now uses a basket of currencies.
Here are the countries that hold the most U.S. debt:
|Rank||Country||U.S. Treasury Holdings||Share of Total|
|3||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||$655B||8.9%|
|6||🇰🇾 Cayman Islands||$284B||3.9%|
|11||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||$221B||3.0%|
|16||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||$120B||1.6%|
|17||🇰🇷 South Korea||$103B||1.4%|
As the above table shows, the United Kingdom is the third highest holder, at over $655 billion in Treasuries. Across Europe, 13 countries are notable holders of these securities, the highest in any region, followed by Asia-Pacific at 11 different holders.
A handful of small nations own a surprising amount of U.S. debt. With a population of 70,000, the Cayman Islands own a towering amount of Treasury bonds to the tune of $284 billion. There are more hedge funds domiciled in the Cayman Islands per capita than any other nation worldwide.
In fact, the four smallest nations in the visualization above—Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Bahamas, and Luxembourg—have a combined population of just 1.2 million people, but own a staggering $741 billion in Treasuries.
Interest Rates and Treasury Market Dynamics
Over 2022, foreign demand for Treasuries sank 6% as higher interest rates and a strong U.S. dollar made owning these bonds less profitable.
This is because rising interest rates on U.S. debt makes the present value of their future income payments lower. Meanwhile, their prices also fall.
As the chart below shows, this drop in demand is a sharp reversal from 2018-2020, when demand jumped as interest rates hovered at historic lows. A similar trend took place in the decade after the 2008-09 financial crisis when U.S. debt holdings effectively tripled from $2 to $6 trillion.
Driving this trend was China’s rapid purchase of Treasuries, which ballooned from $100 billion in 2002 to a peak of $1.3 trillion in 2013. As the country’s exports and output expanded, it sold yuan and bought dollars to help alleviate exchange rate pressure on its currency.
Fast-forward to today, and global interest-rate uncertainty—which in turn can impact national currency valuations and therefore demand for Treasuries—continues to be a factor impacting the future direction of foreign U.S. debt holdings.
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