Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Silver Lining to the Debt Ceiling Fiasco?

In a recent Project Syndicate column, Stephen Roach shared some observations from recent conversations with Chinese policymakers, who were not pleased with the debt ceiling mess:
Senior Chinese officials are appalled at how the United States allows politics to trump financial stability. One high-ranking policymaker noted in mid-July, “This is truly shocking… We understand politics, but your government’s continued recklessness is astonishing.”
Roach suggests that China may be losing its appetite for US Treasuries, and this, he believes, spells trouble for the US:
So China, the largest foreign buyer of US government paper, will soon say, “enough.” Yet another vacuous budget deal, in conjunction with weaker-than-expected growth for the US economy for years to come, spells a protracted period of outsize government deficits. That raises the biggest question of all: lacking in Chinese demand for Treasuries, how will a savings-strapped US economy fund itself without suffering a sharp decline in the dollar and/or a major increase in real long-term interest rates?
The US should hope he's right.  An abrupt reversal would be very disruptive, though it would probably do more harm to China than the US (provided the Fed steps in to limit the increase in US interest rates).  But China's massive purchases of US assets aren't a benefit to the US overall - they are part of a policy that has distorted the US economy away from tradable goods production and towards excess homebuilding (and asset bubbles).

The reason China has accumulated gigantic holdings of US Treasuries is that it has been intervening in foreign exchange markets - selling renminbi for dollars - to keep the value of its own currency down and the dollar up.  It then invests the dollars in Treasuries (i.e., the Treasury bond holdings are a consequence of the foreign exchange policy).  The result is US-produced goods are more expensive relative to Chinese goods. This contributes to the trade imbalance and reduces the size of US exporting and import-competing sectors.  Furthermore, many other countries feel the need to undertake similar interventions to maintain competitiveness vis a vis China, so it is not just the bilateral trade balance that is affected.

According to Roach, China has recognized the need to "rebalance" its own economy to rely less on exports and more on domestic consumption:
China has adopted a very transparent response. Its new 12th Five-Year Plan says it all – a pro-consumption shift in China’s economic structure that addresses head-on China’s unsustainable imbalances. By focusing on job creation in services, massive urbanization, and the broadening of its social safety net, there will be a big boost to labor income and consumer purchasing power. As a result, the consumption share of the Chinese economy could increase by at least five percentage points of GDP by 2015.
If the debt ceiling mess has given China's leadership a greater sense of urgency to get on with that, that's a good thing for them, and for us.

Roach's column came out before the S&P downgrade, but that may have reinforced China's views.

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