Why China is Holding All That Debt

What does it mean that China are making a lot of noise about the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy?

 Via Reuters:

A senior Chinese official said on Friday that the United States should cut back on printing money to stimulate its economy if the world is to have confidence in the dollar.

Asked whether he was worried about the dollar, the chairman of China’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation, Jin Liqun, told the World Economic Forum in Davos: “I am a little bit worried.”

“There will be no winners in currency wars. But it is important for a central bank that the money goes to the right place,” Li said.

At first glance, this seems like pretty absurd stuff. Are we really expected to believe that China didn’t know that the Federal Reserve could just print up a shit-tonne of money for whatever reason it likes? Are we really expected to believe that China didn’t know that given a severe economic recession that Ben Bernanke would throw trillions and trillions of dollars new money at the problem? On the surface, it would seem like the Chinese government has shot itself in the foot by holding trillions and trillions of dollars and debt instruments denominated in a currency that can be easily depreciated. If they wanted hard assets, they should have bought hard assets.

As John Maynard Keynes famously said:

The old saying holds. Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.

But I think Keynes is wrong. I don’t think China’s goal in the international currency game was ever to accumulate a Scrooge McDuck-style hoard of American currency. I think that that was a side-effect of their bigger Mercantilist geopolitical strategy. So China’s big pile of cash is not really the issue.

Scrooge-McDuck

It is often said that China is a currency manipulator. But it is too often assumed that China’s sole goal in its currency operations is to create growth and employment for China’s huge population. There is a greater phenomenon — by becoming the key global manufacturing hub for a huge array of resources, components and finished goods, China has really rendered the rest of the world that dependent on the flow of goods out of China. If for any reason any nation decided to attack China, they would in effect be attacking themselves, as they would be cutting off the free flow of goods and components essential to the function of a modern economy. China as a global trade hub — now producing 20% of global manufacturing output, and having a monopoly in key resources and components — has become, in a way, too big to fail. This means that at least in the near future China has a lot of leverage.

So we must correct Keynes’ statement. Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed; owe him £1 trillion, and become dependent on his manufacturing output, and the position is reversed again.

The currency war, of course, started a long time ago, and the trajectory for the Asian economies and particularly China is now diversifying out of holding predominantly dollar-denominated assets. The BRICs and particularly China have gone to great length to set up the basis of a new reserve currency system.

But getting out of the old reserve currency system and setting up a new one is really a side story to China’s real goal, which appears to have always been that of becoming a global trade hub, and gaining a monopoly on critical resources and components.

Whether China can successfully consolidate its newfound power base, or whether the Chinese system will soon collapse due to overcentralisation and mismanagement remains to be seen.

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The Real Fiscal Cliff

It’s that time of year again — time to kick the can.

No prizes for guessing what investors expect Congress to do:

And 2013 seems likely to give way to can-kicking in 2014, and 2015 and 2016 and 2017 and on — the GAO estimates that by 2080 the US public could hold 8 times as much government debt as the US generates GDP. Just as Japan has never truly dealt with its debt complex — and instead chose the path of cycles of deflation, an endless liquidity trap, a soaring debt-to-GDP ratio, and mandating financial institutions into buying treasuries — so America will continue to kick the can as long as rates and nominal inflation can be kept low, and goods and energy (the real underlying economy) kept flowing. Which — going by the Japanese example — could be a very long time.

Yet America is not Japan. The key difference? The balance of trade, and the flow of goods and services. While Japan’s debt is overwhelmingly domestically held, and while Japan has long been a net-exporter, the USA imports more goods and services than any nation in history:

And more and more US debt and currency is in the hands of the nations that export the goods and services on which America’s economy functions. Here’s the total debt held by foreigners:

And here’s the dollar reserves of various Asian exporter nations:

So when the can is kicked, the Asians — and especially the Chinese — feel they are getting screwed.

As Xinhua noted the last time America faced the fiscal cliff:

The U.S. has long been facing the same problem: living beyond its means. At present, the country has debts as high as 55 trillion U.S. dollars, including more than 14 trillion U.S. dollars of treasury bonds.

And last October:

Economists agree that as the United States’ largest foreign creditor, China should contemplate ways to pull itself out of the “dollar trap,” as the U.S. economy is faltering with its debt piling up and its currency on the brink to depreciate.

China must make fuller use of the non-financial assets in its foreign reserves, as well as speed up the diversification of investing channels to resist a possible long-term weakening of the dollar, said Xia Bing, director of the Finance Research Institutes of the Development Research Center under the State Council.

Zheng Xinli, permanent vice chairman of China Center for International Economic Exchanges, has suggested that Chinese companies boost overseas investment as a way to absorb trade surpluses and fend off the dollar risk.

Now to some degree the Asians knew the bargain they were getting into in buying US treasuries. They were never buying a claim on the US economy, or on the US gold reserves. They were buying a claim on reproducible Federal Reserve notes, and since 1971 the bargain has been that this is a purely fiat currency. Ultimately, if they do not feel like the US will be solvent in the long run, they should not have started lending to it. But now they are the largest real creditor, they have no choice but to keep on buying and keep on stabilising, simply because a functional US economy and a solvent US treasury is about the only way they will see any return at all.

Yet if they don’t exert leverage on the US, then the US seems unlikely to do much at all. Without a little turmoil, legislators have very little incentive to act. If the exporter nations feel as if they are getting screwed, they are only more likely to escalate via the only real means they have — trade war. And having a monopoly on various resources including rare earth minerals (as well as various components and types of finished goods) gives them considerable leverage.

More and more Asian nations — led by China and Russia — have ditched the dollar for bilateral trade (out of fear of dollar instability). Tension rises between the United States and Asia over Syria and Iran. The Asian nations throw more and more abrasive rhetoric around — including war rhetoric.

And on the other hand, both Obama and Romney — as well as Hillary Clinton — seem dead-set on ramping up the tense rhetoric. Romney seems extremely keen to brand China a currency manipulator.

In truth, both sides have a mutual interest in sitting down and engaging in a frank discussion, and then coming out with a serious long-term plan of co-operation on trade and fiscal issues where both sides accept compromises — perhaps Asia could agree to reinvest some of its dollar hoard in the United States to create American jobs and rebuild American infrastructure in exchange for a long-term American deficit-reduction and technology-sharing agreement?

But such co-operation would require real trust and respect — and I just don’t see it. China’s leaders deeply resent the West for the opium war years, and the humiliation that came with the end of the Chinese empire — and they see America as profligate, and culturally degenerate. And America’s leaders see China as an unstable anti-democratic dictatorship, not a prospective partner.

So the future, I think, will more likely involve both sides jumping off the cliff into the uncertain seas of trade war, currency war, default-by-debasement, tariffs, proxy war and regional and global political and economic instability.

Instability Defined

The Economist presents the global Misery Index:

Certainly, it’s not entirely foolproof — but it does seem like a good guide to where the next flash-points will be around the globe over the next twelve months and beyond.

Most significant is probably Iran.

From Zero Hedge:

Yesterday we reported how as a result of a financial embargo enacted on by the US on New Year’s Day, Iran’s economy had promptly entered freefall mode and is now experiencing hyperinflation as the currency implodes.

An Iranian nation driven into the ground by sanctions has much less to lose by going berserk and attacking Israel, perhaps triggering a regional conflagration. The neoconservatives will slaver over this possibility; they think this would mean a short and efficient war, decapitating the regime and installing an Israel-friendly, pro-Western one. I doubt it. America has struggled to subdue incompetent Kalashnikov-wielding insurgents and rock-throwing goatherds in Afghanistan. The war with Iran that America is currently provoking via sanctions — which, as Ron Paul correctly notes, are an act of war — will be just as messy and open-ended as that conflict, with the added danger of triggering a wider war throughout Eurasia.

Misery indeed.