Is China a Currency Manipulator?

Mitt Romney thinks so:

China has an interest in trade. China wants to, as they have 20 million people coming out of the farms and coming into the cities every year, they want to be able to put them to work. They want to have access to global markets. And so we have right now something they need very badly, which is access to our market and our friends around the world, have that same– power over China. To make sure that we let them understand that in order for them to continue to have free and open access to the thing they want so badly, our markets, they have to play by the rules.

They’re a currency manipulator. And on that basis, we go before the W.T.O. and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator. And that allows us to apply tariffs where we believe they are stealing our intellectual property, hacking into our computers, or artificially lowering their prices and killing American jobs. We can’t just sit back and let China run all over us. People say, “Well, you’ll start a trade war.” There’s one going on right now, folks. They’re stealing our jobs. And we’re gonna stand up to China.

The theory goes that by buying U.S. currency (so far they have accumulated around $3 trillion) and treasuries (around $1 trillion) on the open market, China keeps demand for the US dollar high.  They can afford to buy and hold so much US currency due to their huge trade surplus with America, and they buy US currency roughly equal to this surplus.  To keep this pile of dollars from increasing the Chinese money supply, China sterilises the dollar purchases by selling a proportionate amount of bonds to Chinese investors.  Supposedly by boosting the dollar, yuan-denominated Chinese goods look cheap to the American (and global) consumer.

First, I don’t really think we can conclusively say that the yuan is necessarily undervalued. That is like assuming that there is some natural rate of exchange beyond prices in the real world. For every dollar that China takes out of the open market, America could print one more — something which, lest we forget — Bernanke has been very busily doing; the American monetary base has tripled since 2008. Actions have consequences; if China’s currency peg was so unsustainable, the status quo would have collapsed long ago. Until it does, we cannot conclusively say to what extent the yuan is undervalued.

What Romney is forgetting is that every nation with a fiat currency is to some degree or other a currency manipulator. That’s what fiat is all about: the ability of the state to manipulate markets through monetary policy. When Ben Bernanke engages in quantitative easing, or twisting, or any kind of monetary policy or open market operation, the Federal Reserve is engaging in currency manipulation. Every new dollar that is printed devalues every dollar out in the wild, and just as importantly all dollar-denominated debt. So just as Romney can look China in the face and accuse them of being a currency manipulator for trying to peg the yuan to the dollar, China can look at past U.S. administrations and level exactly the same claim — currency manipulation in the national interest.

While China’s currency policy in the past 40 years has been to attract manufacturing, technology, resources and investment into China (and build up a manufacturing base to provide employment to its low-skilled population) by keeping its produce cheap, America’s currency policy has sought to enjoy a free lunch made up of everyone else’s labour and resources. This has been allowed to develop because of America’s reserve currency status — everyone has needed dollars to access global markets, and so America has rested on her laurels and allowed her productive industries to decline. Why manufacture the bulk of your consumption when China can do it cheaper, and Wal Mart has no problem with slave labour? Why manufacture your military hardware when China can do it cheaper? Why produce your own energy when you can instead consume Arab and Latin American oil?

Former U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman raised this issue in an article from China Business News in a cable that was eventually leaked via Wikileaks:

The U.S. has almost used all deterring means, besides military means, against China.  China must be clear on discovering what the U.S. goals are behind its tough stances against China. In fact, a fierce competition between the currencies of big countries has just started.  A crucial move for the U.S. is to shift its crisis to other countries – by coercing China to buy U.S. treasury bonds with foreign exchange reserves and doing everything possible to prevent China’s foreign reserve from buying gold.

If we use all of our foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds, then when someday the U.S. Federal Reserve suddenly announces that the original ten old U.S. dollars are now worth only one new U.S. dollar, and the new U.S. dollar is pegged to the gold – we will be dumbfounded.

Today when the United States is determined to beggar thy neighbor, shifting its crisis to China, the Chinese must be very clear what the key to victory is.  It is by no means to use new foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds.  The issues of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, trade and so on are all false tricks, while forcing China to buy U.S. bonds is the U.S.’s real intention.”

Romney and others of his ilk might brush this off, believing that China’s $3 trillion dollar reserve hoard was gained through unfair means — slave labour, cutting corners in quality, the aforementioned “currency manipulation”, etc, and that that somehow gives America the right to inflate away its debts and screw its creditors. To some degree, they have a point. If China had a problem with America inflating away its debts, it should never have put itself so deep into dollar-denominated paper. If China recognised that America’s debt position was unsustainable, it should never have put so much into something so unsustainable, irrespective of supposed American pressure.

In the short term, though, I think escalating the trade war through the imposition of tariffs is a very bad idea. America is a consumption-led economy, and with middle class incomes already squeezed, a constriction of the supply of cheap and readily available goods is likely to put a lot of downward pressure on consumption. And it’s not just consumption — in today’s hyper-globalised world, a huge proportion of manufacturing — including military hardware — at some stage flows through China.

As Vincent Fernando noted:

Most of America’s key military technologies require rare earth elements, whose production China holds a near-monopoly over.

It’s thus perhaps no surprise that China has made the threat of rare earth export restrictions a new political bargaining chip.

American corporations could gradually pull out of China and shift to manufacturing and extracting resources elsewhere including America (which has large rare earth deposits), but it would be a challenging process. Rebuilding an industrial base is hard: skilled and experienced labour takes time to develop (American labour is rusty and increasingly unemployed and disabled), and supply chains and webs have all agglomerated in China. Building up domestic supply chains takes time, expertise and entrepreneurial zeal. And any destabilisation could spook global markets.

So let’s make no mistake: in the short term America needs China far, far, far more than China needs America. The notion that China needs America as a consumer is totally false; anyone can consume given the dollars or gold, and China holds $3 trillion, and continues to increase its imports of gold.

Peter Schiff summarises:

The big problem for countries like China and India is that they still subsidize the U.S. They buy our Treasury bonds and lend us all this money so we can keep consuming. That’s a big subsidy and a heavy burden.

They can use their money to develop their own economy, produce better and more abundant products for their own citizens. It’s a farce to think that the only thing China can do with its output and savings is lend it to the U.S. government, especially when we can’t pay it back.

Mitt Romney seems intent on destabilising this fragile relationship. American policy that incentivised globalisation and the service economy has very foolishly drawn America into this fragile position where its economy is increasingly fuelled not only by energy coming out of the politically and economically unstable middle east, but also by goods coming from a hostile and increasingly politically and economically unstable power.

And make no mistake — although China has done well to successfully transform itself into the world’s pre-eminent industrial base and biggest creditor, it has a lot of bubbles waiting to burst (particularly housing), stemming from the misallocation of resources under its semi-planned regime. Which makes this entire scenario doubly dangerous. Any shock in China would surely be transmitted to America, simply because it is becoming increasingly pointless for China to continue subsidising American consumption (through buying treasuries) when they could instead spend the money raising the Chinese standard of living. That could mean a painful rate-spike.

The real problem is that Romney is trying to address a problem that is very much in the past. If Romney was elected as President on this platform in 2000, things might be different. But China got what it wanted: by keeping its currency cheap and its labour force impoverished it became the world’s pre-eminent industrial base, the spider at the heart of the web of global trade, and a monopoly on important industrial components and resources. China used American demand, technology and investment during the 00s to develop. Now the imperative is not to grab a bigger share of global manufacturing, or a bigger hoard of dollarsit’s to leverage that position toward the ultimate aim of returning China to its multi-millennial superpower status. The promise of Chinese primacy is quite simply the strongest tool for the CPC to retain its (increasingly shaky) grip on China.

However we should not discount the possibility that bursting economic bubbles may stoke up some kind of popular rebellion against the Communist authorities in some kind of Chinese Spring. A new more pro-Western regime is surely America’s best hope of containing China, while gradually manoeuvring itself out of dependency on Arab oil and Chinese goods. But that may just be wishful thinking; it is possible that a new Chinese regime may be vehemently anti-Western; the Opium War and China’s 20th century humiliation still ring deeply in the Chinese psyche.

So it is unclear what is next for China, and the relationship between China and America. But having the world’s biggest manufacturing base and a monopoly over rare earths is a strong position to be in if your ultimate aim is to manufacture huge quantities of armaments in the pursuit of an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy…

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Confucius on Central Planning

The natural Universe maintains order without giving commands, and the ruler should do likewise, remaining motionless like the North Star and letting the people revolve spontaneously around him. If you yourself are correct, even without the issuing of orders, things will get done; if you yourself are not correct, although orders are issued, they will not be obeyed.

Did Confucius detect the inherent fragility in central planning? That is, that the pushier and more micro-managerial that rulers become, the more they elicit big unwanted side-effects? The relevant example, of course is Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Mao sought to bring the entirety of Chinese society under his yoke, and drag China quickly forward to equal Western industrial development that had taken place organically at a much slower pace.

From Wiki:

Before 1949, peasants had farmed their own small pockets of land, and observed traditional practices connected to markets—festivals, banquets, and paying homage to ancestors.

By 1958 private ownership was entirely abolished and households all over China were forced into state-operated communes. Mao insisted that the communes must produce more grain for the cities and earn foreign exchange from exports.

While collectivisation was eventually achieved (though not without resistance), the largest unsolicited side effect in this case was mass starvation.

Dutch historian Frank Dikötter explains:

The Great Leap Forward began by collectivising rural farms. Farmers were no longer allowed to grow food for themselves and for profit; instead, they grew it for the collective and the nation. Kitchens were also collectivised; in many places, people were not allowed to own pots and pans because they were required to take all their meals in community dining halls.

To boost crop production, planners took people who once grew grain and put them to work on new irrigation projects. Other farmers were told to work on community iron smelters, thousands of which were built in the campaign to overtake Britain. To produce “steel,” party leaders required many villages to melt down all metal in the community, including farm tools. The resulting pig iron was often of much poorer quality than the source metal.

The lack of incentives to work combined with the lack of people and, in some cases, the lack of farm implements led almost immediately to reduced crops. But provincial leaders who were rewarded for meeting targets didn’t want to admit declines to the central party, so they reported great successes. The national government appropriated 25 to 33 percent of the reported crops for export and to feed the cities. But with actual crops much less than reported, this didn’t leave enough to feed the villages, who in many cases were forced to eat the seed reserved for next year’s crops.

Given that collective farmers had no positive incentives to work, party officials quickly began using negative ones, namely violence against anyone not working hard enough. One county leader considered violence a “duty” and told people working for him, “having a campaign is not the same as doing embroidery; it is impossible not to beat people to death.” Another county leader told cadres, “There are so many people working, it doesn’t matter if you beat a few to death”.

The people who passed out food in the community dining halls knew who worked and who shirked; they would dip to the bottom of soup pots to provide the former with meat and vegetables while the latter would get a watery gruel skimmed from the top. Eventually, some people were denied access to food at all and beaten if they were found with food. One boy who stole a few ounces of grain was stripped, bound, and thrown into a pond where he eventually died of exposure. In some regions, as many as 10 percent of the deaths were due to violence, not food shortages.

If the steel mills were failures, the poorly engineered irrigation projects were no better, often actually reducing the productivity of the land. Within a few years, thousands of poorly built dams collapsed. The failure of one set of dams during a storm in 1975 led to floods that killed 230,000 people.

It is hard to understate how far Maoism was a departure from Confucianism. And it is telling that China only dragged herself out of her great slumber when she ditched Mao’s regressive centralism and returned to a closer approximation of Confucianism under Deng Xiaoping, and to a greater extent under Wen Jiabao’s present regime.

Readers trying to understand the present clash between two factions of the Chinese Communist Party, would do well to see it in terms of Wen’s Confucian faction being challenged by Bo Xailai’s Maoist faction.

From Tom Doctoroff writing in the Huffington Post:

Bo Xilai’s brand of populism was a threat to the nation. He championed the interests of Everyman, but his modus operandi was steeped in Cultural Revolution hysteria. The flip side of massive investment in low-income housing was manipulation of economic insecurity. His anti-mafia zeal, heralded as a campaign against corruption, was a bid to monopolize power within the Party, exacerbating an accountability deficit that tarnishes credibility amongst both rich and poor. His “red song” campaigns, reactionary homages to the Cult of Mao that continue even now to chill both foreigners and mainlanders. To advance his own agenda, he tapped into a latent but enduring impulse to worship, and blindly follow, imperial god-kings, false leaders whose anti-rational policies lead to disaster.

Perhaps then the greatest threat to China — Confucian, not Maoist — as regional and global superpower has just fallen…

Chinese Instability?

Some commenters have noted that it is not necessarily a good idea to buy equities in a nation that is about to become a global superpower. And so it was following the 1929 crash as Britain descended, and America — encumbered by a historic depression — ascended. Certainly, investors buying equities in 1929 might never have recovered their purchasing power until the 1960s:

So while China is ascendant, and arguably — on the strength of being the spider at the web of global trade, the biggest consumer of oil, its huge foreign exchange reserves, and (most importantly) the globe’s major productive base — already pulling ahead, things might well still be volatile for China. Certainly, it seems a volatile time for many Chinese; the nation lacks a public healthcare system, workers are frequently injured or killed in industrial accidents, air quality is often poor, pollution is still rampant and free speech is still an utterly alien concept. But on the other hand, they are blessed with very high rates of growth backed by very high rates of growth in real productivity, high levels of saving, and low levels of net debt.

And it seems like a recent schism in China’s leadership could worsen matters.

From the Washington Times:

U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring China’s Internet say that from March 14 to Wednesday bloggers circulated alarming reports of tanks entering Beijing and shots being fired in the city as part of what is said to have been a high-level political battle among party leaders – and even a possible military coup.

The Internet discussions included photos posted online of tanks and other military vehicles moving around Beijing.

The reports followed the ouster last week of senior Politburo member and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was linked to corruption, but who is said to remain close to China’s increasingly nationalistic military.

Chinese microblogging sites Sina Weibo, QQ Weibo, and the bulletin board of the search engine Baidu all reported “abnormalities” in Beijing on the night of March 19.

The comments included rumors of the downfall of the Shanghai leadership faction and a possible “military coup,” along with reports of gunfire on Beijing’s Changan Street. The reports were quickly removed by Chinese censors shortly after postings and could no longer be accessed by Wednesday.

While it is impossible and foolish to try and draw larger conclusions from these snippets of information, it is fairly safe to say that if true, Western leaders — spooked by the various authoritarian Eurasian and pro-Chinese governments who have ditched the dollar for bilateral trade — will be keen to see some of the spirit of the Arab Spring on the streets of Beijing. Of course, American commentators may not be so happy if a radical protectionist anti-American faction of the military — intent on defending Iran from Israel, and exporting less goods and components to the United States — takes control of the nascent superpower. 

But such a military coup seems very unlikely. The likeliest view is that this is simply the inevitable ouster of a Communist Party figure who simply didn’t fit in, in a country where for the political class fitting in is still exceedingly important.