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.
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.
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 dollars, it’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…