Understatement of the Week
China expresses some … um … “concern” about whether or not it will ever see its money back:
The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, expressed unusually blunt concern on Friday about the safety of China’s $1 trillion investment in American government debt, the world’s largest such holding, and urged the Obama administration to provide assurances that the securities would maintain their value in the face of a global financial crisis.
Speaking ahead of a meeting of finance ministers and bankers this weekend in London to lay the groundwork for next month’s G20 summit, Mr. Wen said he was “worried” about China’s holdings of United States Treasury bonds and other debt, and that China was watching economic developments in the United States closely.
“President Obama and his new government have adopted a series of measures to deal with the financial crisis. We have expectations as to the effects of these measures,” Mr. Wen said. “We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.”
Just a little? There’s an old saying to the effect of “if you owe the bank $1 Million, then the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $1 Trillion, then you own the bank.” China’s feeling pretty nervous because it knows it can’t sell its holdings except at a tremendous loss — both from the normal discount expected, and from the fact that it is by far the largest mover in the market (e.g. what do you think would happen to Microsoft stock if Bill Gates started selling off?) — and it doesn’t see a whole lot coming out of Washington to instill confidence.
But there’s no need to fret PM Jiabao! Unnamed economists are here to save the day:
While economists dismissed the possibility of the United States defaulting on its obligations, they said China could face steep losses in the event of a sharp rise in United States interest rates or a plunge in the value of the dollar.
Whew! That was close. Nothing but a little market risk to worry about there, Jiabao. Default? Pffft … never gonna happen.
Back in the land called “reality” however, default is plays a bigger part since, aside from reneging on the debt, there are only three other ways for the government to pay for its spending binge: higher taxes, printing more money, or borrowing. Higher taxes impedes growth and leads to less revenue. Printing money leads to hyper-inflation. So, even though those two choices will be used to a certain extent, further borrowing is the only viable alternative to default. But who’s going to lend to us?
The bulk of China’s investment in the United States consists of bonds issued by the Treasury and government-sponsored enterprises and purchased by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which is part of the People’s Bank of China … much of the Treasury debt China purchased in recent years carries a low interest rate, and would plunge in value if interest rates were to rise sharply in the United States. Some financial experts have warned that measures taken to combat the financial crisis — running large budget deficits and expanding the money supply — may eventually create price inflation, which would lead to higher interest rates.
This puts the Chinese government in a difficult position. The smaller the United States stimulus, the less its borrowing, which could help prevent interest rates from rising. But less government spending in the United States could also mean a slower recovery for the American economy and reduced American demand for Chinese goods.
It may just be the case that China’s best option is to support its investment by propping up its best customer with yet more loans. Unfortunately, that means that Washington will have little incentive to slow down spending (since it owns the bank). The nasty little cycle of borrowing > spending > inflation > rising interest rates > falling dollar, will continue necessitating even more borrowing. China, in turn, will have serious questions about the value of its investment, and the US will start having serious discussions about declaring a default.
In short, China’s not just “worried” about the current fiscal mess. It’s crapping its collectivist shorts.