The United States remains the world's largest debtor nation, but the red ink is less abundant under a new way the government is using to put together international investment figures.
Under the old method, America's deficit stood at $663.75 billion at the end of 1989. That reflects the imbalance between what Americans own overseas and what foreigners own in this country.The Commerce Department on Sunday released two new valuation procedures that put the deficit figure at either $463.96 billion or an even lower $281.44 billion at the end of 1989.
The $382 billion gap between the three figures derives from how the American and foreign holdings are valued.
Under the old system, the government used the original purchase price to value the assets.
Critics have long contended that this understated the value of U.S. overseas holdings, many of which were purchased in the 1950s.
To address this problem, Commerce revalued the old assets. By one method, the department determined a current replacement cost for the assets. The other method used stock market prices for the companies involved to provide values for the assets.
Under the old method, the United States crossed the threshold and became a net debtor in 1984. But under the current cost method, the nation did not become a net debtor until 1986. Using stock prices, the switch did not occur until 1987.
However, all three methods show the country's net debtor position growing rapidly in later years and economists said it was this underlying trend that was of greatest importance.
"The reality is that we are selling this country and going deeper into debt, and with that foreign ownership comes political control," said Pat Choate, an economic consultant and critic of foreign investment in the United States. "This just puts a pretty face on an ugly trend."
Economists predicted that when the U.S. investment position for 1990 is released next month, it will show the country's debtor position growing worse by about $100 billion, no matter which asset valuation is used.
"The important thing is the direction, and the direction is clearly wrong," said David Wyss, an economist with DRI-McGraw Hill in Lexington, Mass.
The nation's plunge from largest creditor to largest debtor was caused by the huge merchandise trade deficits of the 1980s as Americans transferred billions of dollars to foreigners to pay for imported cars and television sets.
Those dollars, now in foreign hands, have been reinvested in the United States in everything from Iowa farmland to Hollywood movie studios.
That development has triggered warn-ings that the United States is in danger of losing control of its economic destiny to foreigners.