Theories of the Financial Crisis: The Chinese-American economic imbalance


By Joe Campbell
April 23rd, 2009


 
John P. Judis summarized this theory of the crisis in The New Republic, “Economists know the fatal flaw in our system – but they can’t agree how to fix it.” Judis described how America has relied for decades on a “tortuous financial arrangement that knits together its economy with those of China and Japan”:

This informal system has allowed Asian countries to run huge export surpluses with the United States, while allowing the United States to run huge budget deficits without having to raise interest rates or taxes, and to run huge trade deficits without abruptly depreciating its currency. I couldn’t find a single instance of Obama discussing this issue, but it has been an obsession of bankers, international economists, and high officials like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. They think this informal system contributed to today’s financial crisis. Worse, they fear that its breakdown could turn the looming downturn into something resembling the global depression of the 1930s…

China depends on exports to the United States, and the United States depends on capital from China. If that special economic relationship breaks down, as it seems to be doing, it could lead to a global recession that could morph into the first depression since the 1930s.

Judis’s article seems to rely heavily on the analysis of Nouriel Roubini wrote most prolifically on this subject and predicted this system was approaching a crisis point in 2006. In a paper written with another prescient economist Brad Setser, Roubini pointed out the instability inherent in a system in which:

The US absorbs at least 80% of the savings that the rest of the world does not invest at home….[And] Social peace in China comes at the expense of political peace in the US.

Historian Niall Ferguson pointed the historical anomaly this represents as:

Usually it’s the rich country lending to the poor. This time, it’s the poor country lending to the rich.

Mark Landler explained the dynamic at work – and how it led to the current crisis – in a New York Times piece that was part of that newspaper’s “The Reckoning” series looking in depth at issues that led to the crisis:

In the past decade, China has invested upward of $1 trillion, mostly earnings from manufacturing exports, into American government bonds and government-backed mortgage debt. That has lowered interest rates and helped fuel a historic consumption binge and housing bubble in the United States…

By itself, money from China is not a bad thing. As American officials like to note, it speaks to the attractiveness of the United States as a destination for foreign investment. In the 19th century, the United States built its railroads with capital borrowed from the British.

In the past decade, China arguably enabled an American boom. Low-cost Chinese goods helped keep a lid on inflation, while the flood of Chinese investment helped the government finance mortgages and a public debt of close to $11 trillion.

But Americans did not use the lower-cost money afforded by Chinese investment to build a 21st-century equivalent of the railroads. Instead, the government engaged in a costly war in Iraq, and consumers used loose credit to buy sport utility vehicles and larger homes. Banks and investors, eagerly seeking higher interest rates in this easy-money environment, created risky new securities like collateralized debt obligations.

“Nobody wanted to get off this drug,” said Senator Lindsey Graham…

As Chinese money flooded into the American market, it created bubbles in which prices were inflated.

The primary beneficiaries of these bubbles were the economic elite whose jobs were not being outsourced or undercut by Chinese manufacturing and who owned stock, housing, or other assets which increased in value due to the added funds sloshing around in the financial system.

The American government similarly benefited from this Bretton Woods II as they were able to engage in wars, increase domestic spending, and lower taxes all at the same time – all without paying a higher interest rate on their deficit spending.

Financial firms made huge amounts of money as the inflow of the world’s savings bid up the prices of the assets they were buying and selling – and of course, they took the first cut of any profits from the sales – and assessed numerous fees for whatever it was they were doing. With an excess of capital, borrowing is cheap – which allows firms to make massive leveraged bets – also increasing their profits as well as their risk of being wiped out.

Lower wage workers benefited to a lesser extent as cheap Chinese goods – especially as sold by Wal-Mart – increased their buying power even as their wages stagnated over the past decade. Coupled with the easy credit resulting from the excess of money in the financial markets, the majority of workers were able to approximate a rising standard of living even as their wages stagnated – undercut by competition from abroad.

Until now – as this whole house of cards is falling apart. 

China is hoping the solution is to jump start it’s own domestic consumption – which might be difficult due to a wariness on the part of many Chinese about their future prospects: 

China kicked off its own campaign to encourage domestic consumption, which it hoped would provide a new source. But Chinese save with the same zeal that, until recently, Americans spent. Shorn of the social safety net of the old Communist state, they squirrel away money to pay for hospital visits, housing or retirement.

This accounts for the savings glut identified by Mr. Bernanke.

The way things are going now – it seems we’re screwed unless the Chinese people stop being so responsible thrifty and start spending like drunken American sailors. A paradox of thrift indeed.

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It should be noted that while I – and most of the authors I cite – specifically talk about the Chinese-American relationship, the points being made apply to East Asia in general – especially Japan which has contributed to the imbalance nearly as much as China.

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