December 04, 2008
Bad Now and Worse Next Year
In the short run, a weakened yuan mops up the trillions of dollars of liquidity American taxpayers are injecting into the U.S. economy and sends that money to Chinese exporters. By making Chinese clothes, toys, and companies cheaper, a cheap yuan makes it impossible for the U.S. to invest dollars into U.S. production capacity. With an artificially cheap yuan, the rational way to spend an extra dollar of liquidity is to convert it to a pile of yuan.
In the long run, this will leave China with even less domestic demand and more production overcapacity, and it will leave the U.S. with less real investment and more unproductive debt. It will not do anything to strengthen confidence in balance of trade between U.S. and China: instead, ballooning current account numbers are more likely to precipitate a loss in confidence that global trade makes any sense at all.
I fear we will look back on the weakening yuan as the equivalent of the United States passing the Smoot-Hawley Tarriff Act in 1930: the triggering event that ended up shutting down global trade and sending the planet into a depression for a generation. One year after Smoot-Hawley, the British government defaulted on its gold obligations. Today, the mechanical result of increasing trade imbalances with China is that a huge trade deficit increases the risk of a Treasury default.
If we think the subprime collapse was bad, or if we think Lehman's bankruptcy was painful, we have to keep in mind that we haven't seen anything that compares to a U.S. government treasury collapse.
China should be wary of pushing Treasuries over the edge. Yes, the suffering of China's exporters is real. But Chinese authorities have an easy fix their for their domestic problems: they need to borrow, in yuan, to stimulate Chinese domestic demand. China needs to learn how to spend money on itself, instead of buying growth on the backs of U.S. credit.Posted by David at December 4, 2008 06:46 AM
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