WASHINGTON — If Saudi Arabia follows through on its recent threat to sell off its investments in the United States, the financial maneuver could be painful — mostly for Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom has pumped some of its oil profits into the United States, acquiring billions of dollars in Treasury securities and investments that include a giant oil refinery in Port Arthur, Tex., and a $10 million stake in an Arkansas company that makes industrial lubricants.
All of that could be sold off if Congress passes a bill allowing Saudi Arabia to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Saudi government warned last week.
Such a fire sale might roil financial markets or cause problems for companies that lost funding, but experts say it is hard to imagine a significant or lasting impact on the American economy. Global investors continue to shovel money into the United States; if the Saudis go, the experts say, others will take their place.
“The world is desperate to lend money to anybody that’s credible at very low rates, so I don’t see this as an issue at all,” said Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University who says that foreign divestment — by China or other nations — poses little threat to the American economy.
However, a sell-off could be self-defeating for Saudi Arabia. The Port Arthur refinery highlights the cost of pulling back.
The refinery is owned by Motiva Enterprises, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant. Aramco has a long history of investing in the United States, in part to facilitate the sale of Saudi oil to American consumers. Last month, Aramco announced a deal to take full ownership of the refinery, along with a network of 26 distribution terminals and the rights to sell fuel under the Shell brand name across a large swath of the United States, including Texas.
The Saudis might be able to sell the refinery, but they would lose a strategic investment.
“For a producer that big, you have to be in every market in the world to place your oil,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, director of the Energy, Economics and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Aramco also invests in technologies, including the $10 million stake in NanoMech in Arkansas, announced last week, and part ownership of at least eight other small American companies.
There is no comprehensive public accounting of the Saudi government’s investments in the United States, although American officials say $750 billion is a plausible figure.
And the single largest chunk of that money is probably invested in Treasury securities.
The Treasury Department says a group of 15 “oil-exporting” nations including Saudi Arabia held a total of $281 billion in Treasuries in February, deposited either in the United States or in one of the 15 countries. That number may actually understate the Saudi government’s holdings, however, because it does not include Treasury debt the kingdom may have deposited in other countries like Switzerland.
Regardless, it is clear that Saudi Arabia’s holdings are only a small share of the roughly $14 trillion in Treasury securities not held by the federal government. There’s little doubt the Saudis could sell
all of it, gradually, without causing a ripple in the market, experts say.
Foreign central banks last year reduced total holdings of Treasuries by $225 billion, and the markets didn’t even burp. About $502 billion in Treasuries changed hands on the average trading day in March, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
“I would guess that any reserve manager would be able to find a way to sell this amount in under a year without much of a ripple,” said Stephen G. Cecchetti, a professor of international economics at Brandeis University.
The Saudis could roil markets by offering discounts and selling quickly. But again, they would suffer most from such a sale.
Their departure from the Treasury market would tend to put upward pressure on interest rates. Fewer buyers for the same pool of assets makes sellers try harder, and rates on Treasuries serve as a benchmark for a wide range of other borrowing costs. But the Federal Reserve could calibrate its management of interest rates to take account of those effects, essentially insulating the domestic economy.
Louis Crandall, chief economist at the research firm Wrightson ICAP, described the likely consequences as “lots of short-term technical impacts, depending on how fast they did it, rather than fundamental problems.” He noted that large movements in foreign Treasury holdings had become a fact of life for the Treasury market.
Saudi Arabia already is selling foreign assets. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority has sharply reduced its foreign holdings to help offset declining oil revenues. The authority reported holdings of foreign securities worth $395 billion as of February, the most recent data available. That reflects a sharp decline from the end of 2014, when the holdings were valued at $533 billion.
The share of Treasuries held by foreign investors has climbed sharply over the last few decades, leading some experts to caution that any flagging of foreign appetites could increase borrowing costs both for the federal government and for American consumers and businesses.
There is little danger from Treasury sales by a specific country, so long as foreign demand in aggregate remains strong. A broader sell-off could be more dangerous, but those worries have ebbed. The demand for Treasuries has seemed insatiable in recent years.
Still, Francis E. Warnock, a professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on international economics, said there was a still a long-term risk.
“If the Saudis do it, others might do it as well,” Mr. Warnock said. “To me that’s the bigger issue. If we’re in a world where foreign governments think more carefully about holding U.S. assets, then we’re in a very different world.”
Continue reading the main story