Category Archive for: China [Return to Main]

Sunday, May 02, 2010

"The 'Real' Causes of China’s Trade Surplus"

Zheng Song, Kjetil Storesletten, and Fabrizio Zilibotti argue, based upon their forthcoming AER article, that although China has accumulated nearly two and a half trillion in reserves in the last two decades, "it is wrong, and even dangerous, to blame this on a manipulation of the exchange rate." They argue that the existence of credit market imperfections leading to the need for high levels of internal savings provides a better explanation:

The “real” causes of China’s trade surplus, by Zheng Song, Kjetil Storesletten, and Fabrizio Zilibotti, Vox EU: Over the last two decades, China has run large trade surpluses. Its foreign reserves swelled from $21 billion in 1992 (5% of its annual GDP) to $2.4 trillion in June 2009 (close to 50% of its GDP). The effect of this gigantic build up of reserves has been a source of growing public attention in the context of the debate on global imbalances. This debate has gained momentum during the global crisis. Lobbyists and politicians voice the popular concern that by swamping western markets with its products, China contributes to the failure of domestic firms and job losses. The call for protectionism is mounting.

Did China engineer a trade surplus?

A common argument, especially in the US, is that the culprit of global imbalances is the exchange rate manipulation carried out by the Chinese authorities, who peg the renminbi to the dollar at a low value. According to Fred Bergsten, head of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the renminbi is undervalued by at least 25% to 40%. This "hostile" policy raises calls for robust retaliation.

While economists have so far opposed any measure that might ignite a vicious cycle of trade retaliations and protectionism, even their front is cracking. Krugman (2010) advocated using the threat of a 25% import surcharge to force China to revalue. Last month, 130 lawmakers signed a letter asking the US Treasury to increase tariffs on Chinese-made imports. On 12 April 2010, Barack Obama openly criticized the Chinese exchange-rate policy in front of Hu Jintao, arguing that currencies should "roughly" track the market so that no country has an advantage in trade. Meanwhile, Senator Charles Schumer called for high tariffs against Chinese imports in order to force Beijing to revalue its currency.

The exchange rate manipulation premise

The manipulation thesis rests on the simple postulate that the imbalance itself is evidence of a misalignment of the exchange rate. Letting market forces determine the exchange rate would restore trade balance.

This argument has weak foundations. What matters is the real exchange rate, not the nominal one. While the Chinese surplus has persisted for almost two decades, the real exchange rate has remained as flat as a pancake (see McKinnon 2006, Figure 3). A misaligned real exchange rate should feed domestic inflation, e.g., by increasing the demand of non-traded goods and stimulating domestic wage pressure. Yet, until very recently it does not appear as if China has experienced any major inflationary pressure – between 1997 and 2007 the inflation rate was on average about the same as in the US. Moreover, wages have grown slower than output per worker (see Banister 2007).

In a recent article on this site, Helmut Reisen (2010) shows that a large part of the alleged undervaluation of the renminbi can be attributed to the Balassa-Samuelson effect (i.e., the fact that non-traded goods do not follow the law of one price and are relatively cheap in developing countries). He concludes that "the undervaluation in 2008 of the renminbi was only 12% against the regression-fitted value for China's income level." This is by no means a large number: “Both India and South Africa (which had a current-account deficit) were more undervalued in 2008.” In summary, while it is reasonable to expect some appreciation of the real exchange rate in the years to come (through either inflation or adjustments in the nominal exchange rate), the government manipulation of the nominal exchange rate is unlikely to be the primary cause of the two-decades-long imbalance.

A “real” explanation: Growing like China

What, then, can account for the Chinese surplus? We believe that the answer lies in real (i.e., structural) factors rather than in nominal rigidities. Let us look at the imbalance from an asset flow perspective: 

Continue reading ""The 'Real' Causes of China’s Trade Surplus"" »

Friday, April 23, 2010

Will Chinese Revaluation Create American Jobs?

An argument that revaluation of the renminbi/renembi won't have much effect on jobs in the US:

Will Chinese revaluation create American jobs?, by Simon J Evenett and Joseph Francois, Vox EU: Many in the US are pushing China to revalue the renminbi. Will that create US jobs? Traditional Keynesian analysis associates higher exports and lower imports with more jobs, but today’s world is more complex. Chinese parts and components feed into US firms’ global competitiveness. This column says a dearer renembi would boost the competitiveness of US exports to China but reduce US competitiveness everywhere else. A revaluation may be the right policy for other reasons, but its impact on US jobs is far from clear.

Undervaluation of China’s exchange rate is central to the debate on the right global policy mix in the aftermath of the economic crisis. Estimates of the undervaluation vary (from zero to 40%, Cheung, Chinn, and Fuji 2010) along with the reasons for focusing on the renembi:

  • The IMF expresses concern about persistent capital account imbalances and asymmetries between surplus and deficit countries, with concern that imbalances contributed to past global financial instability and could so in future. The IMF also calls an exchange rate appreciation “essential” for China’s domestic macroeconomic situation (IMF 2010).
  • Senior Brazilian and Indian officials call upon their Chinese counterparts to revalue the renminbi to mitigate competitiveness concerns.
  • In the US, some call for revaluation as a means of redressing the bilateral imbalance with China and quickly creating US jobs.

In this column, we focus on the last issue; that is, whether it is realistic to expect a US jobs bonus to follow a Chinese revaluation. ...

With extensive global supply chains and outsourcing, a modest Chinese revaluation will ... raise costs for US firms and thus harm US competitiveness everywhere except in the Chinese market. This cost-raising effect mutes the current account improvement and, by our estimates, may result in 424,000 jobs losses in the US.

Findings such as these call for a rethink of aggressive foreign trade policy towards China, not just by the US but all those nations that supply and source parts and components to and from China as part of global supply chains.

And, rebuttal:

Estimating the effect of renminbi appreciation on US jobs: A comment on Francois' China result, by William R. Cline, Vox EU: Would appreciation of the renminbi actually destroy US jobs? This column discusses recent estimates that find that making intermediate inputs from China more expensive would hurt US global competitiveness. It argues that the direct effect of an improvement in the US trade balance would create far more jobs than might be lost to more expensive intermediate inputs.

In a recent study, Francois (2010) estimates that if China appreciated the renminbi by 10%, the US trade balance would rise by $100 billion but the number of US jobs would decline by 430,000. He uses a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model to make this calculation. He allows for below-full capacity and sticky wages so that it is possible for a change in the external balance to affect the level of employment. The paradoxical negative sign on employment as a consequence of the currency correction stems from the model specification that emphasizes induced losses of jobs throughout the economy that result as a consequence of the increase in costs of intermediate inputs imported from China and used in the US economy. Francois argues that the gain of employment in exports and import substitutes would be too small to offset the loss of jobs in the general economy; hence the net loss of 430,000 jobs. This column examines whether these results make sense. ...

This exercise suggests that something appears to have gone wrong in the Francois calculations. A reasonable approximation of his two opposing effects suggests that the 10% RMB appreciation would create 320,000 jobs from the US trade balance improvement and eliminate only 32,000 jobs from the induced effect of higher intermediate input costs to US manufacturing. ...

Even if the effect on US jobs is small, we should still care about the effect of China's currency policy on other developing countries. That's where China's currency policy is likely have the greatest effect in terms of shifting the location of manufacturing employment.

The effect of the policy on global imbalances and the potential impact on financial stability is also of concern. However, given the IMF's behavior toward countries that needed help in the past, it's hard to be critical of the desire to establish a reserve fund as insurance against having to turn to the IMF for help. That's why giving countries such as China a larger role in determining IMF policies could help with currency alignment problems. With a credible change in IMF policy, countries could get the help they need when troubles arise at a smaller cost than it takes to build up large reserve balances.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Eichengreen: Why China is Right on the Renminbi

Barry Eichengreen says that China's exchange rate policy is "exactly right":

Why China is Right on the Renminbi, by Barry Eichengreen, Commentary, Project Syndicate: After a period of high tension between the United States and China, culminating earlier this month in rumblings of an all-out trade war, it is now evident that ... China is finally prepared to let the renminbi resume its slow but steady upward march. ...
Some observers, including those most fearful of a trade war, will be relieved. Others, who see a substantially undervalued renminbi as a significant factor in US unemployment, will be disappointed by gradual adjustment. They would have preferred a sharp revaluation of perhaps 20%...
Still others dismiss the change in Chinese exchange-rate policy as beside the point. For them, the Chinese current-account surplus and its mirror image, the US current-account deficit, are the central problem. ... The US is running external deficits because of a national savings shortfall, which once reflected spendthrift households but now is the fault of a feckless government.
There is no reason, they conclude, why a change in the renminbi-dollar exchange rate should have a first-order impact on savings or investment in China, much less in the US. There is no reason, therefore, why it should have a first-order impact on the bilateral current-account balance, or, for that matter, on unemployment, which depends on the same saving and investment behavior.
In fact, both sets of critics have it wrong. China was right to wait in adjusting its exchange rate, and it is now right to move gradually rather than discontinuously. ...
China successfully navigated the crisis, avoiding a significant slowdown, by ramping up public spending. But, as a result, it now has no further scope for increasing public consumption or investment.
To be sure, building a social safety net, developing financial markets, and strengthening corporate governance to encourage state enterprises to pay out more of what they earn would encourage Chinese households to consume. But such reforms take years to complete. In the meantime, the rate of spending growth in China will not change dramatically.
As a result, Chinese policymakers have been waiting to see whether the recovery in the US is real. If it is, China’s exports will grow more rapidly. And if its exports grow more rapidly, they can allow the renminbi to rise. ...
Evidence that the US recovery will be sustained is mounting. As always, there is no guarantee. ... Because the increase in US spending on Chinese exports will be gradual, it also is appropriate for the adjustment in the renminbi-dollar exchange rate to be gradual. ...

Chinese officials have been on the receiving end of a lot of gratuitous advice. They have been wise to disregard it. In managing their exchange rate, they have gotten it exactly right.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Brazil and India add to China Pressure"

Interesting development on China's currency policy:

Brazil and India add to China pressure, by Geoff Dyer, Financial Times: China is facing growing pressure from other developing countries to begin appreciating its currency, providing unexpected allies for the US in the diplomatic tussle over Beijing’s exchange rate policy. ...
Indian and Brazilian central bank presidents have made the most forceful statements yet by their countries about the case for a stronger Chinese currency.
While most of the public pressure on China has come from the US, the comments underline that a number of developing economies feel that China’s dollar peg has imposed costs on their economies. ...
Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore, added his country’s voice to the debate last week, saying it was “in China’s own interests” with the financial crisis over to have a more flexible exchange rate.
Some in China have fended off US pressure for a stronger currency, describing it as a distraction from the real causes of the financial crisis. However, criticism from developing countries is not so easy to bat away. ...
The increase in criticism of China comes at a time of relative calm between Beijing and Washington over the issue, with many US officials and analysts assuming China has already decided to abandon its peg with the dollar over coming months. ...

I've been interested in how the crisis would affect the strategy of developing economies, in particular if we would see an increase in the number of countries abandoning Western-style development strategies that are, at their heart, market-based in favor of more centrally directed development such as in China.

However, part of China's development strategy includes its currency policy, and if both developed and developing countries begin to view these policies as coming at the expense of other nations, at the expense of developing nations in particular, there may be less willingness to pursue similar strategies (e.g. due to fear of retaliation in the form of trade restrictions imposed by nations that believe they are being harmed by the policy).

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"Evaluating the Renminbi Manipulation"

Following up on the Joe Stiglitz post below this one, Martin Wolf has a different view. Unlike Stiglitz, he thinks that sanctions against China in retaliation for its currency policy are needed if China doesn't change its ways:

Evaluating the renminbi manipulation, by Martin Wolf, Commentary, Financial Times: The incumbent superpower has blinked in its confrontation with the rising one: the US Treasury has decided to postpone a report due by April 15 on whether China is an exchange-rate manipulator. ...

Is China a currency manipulator? Yes. ...China has controlled the appreciation of both nominal and real exchange rates. This surely is currency manipulation. It is also protectionist, being equivalent to a uniform tariff and export subsidy. Premier Wen Jiabao has protested against “depreciating one’s own currency, and attempting to pressure others to appreciate, for the purpose of increasing exports. In my view, that is protectionism”. The Chinese pot is calling the US kettle black.

Yet some economists deny this, offering four counter-arguments: first, while the intervention is huge, the distortion is small; second, the impact on the global balance of payments is modest; third, global “imbalances” do not matter; and, finally, the problem, albeit real, is being resolved. Let us consider each of these points in turn. ...[explains why he believes each point is wrong]...

I conclude that the renminbi is undervalued, that this is dangerous for the durability of global recovery and that China’s actions have not, so far, provided a durable solution. I conclude, too, that rebalancing is a necessary condition for sustainable recovery, changes in competitiveness are a necessary condition for rebalancing, real renminbi appreciation is necessary for changes in competitiveness, and a rise in the currency is necessary for real appreciation, given the Chinese desire to curb inflation.

The US was right to give talking a chance. But talk must lead to action. 

Also, please see this update from Paul Krugman:

Immaculate Transfer Strikes Again, by Paul Krugman: Oh, dear. Via Mark Thoma, I see that Joe Stiglitz has fallen victim to the doctrine of immaculate transfer...

[As Krugman explains here, Steven Roach - who is also mentioned by Martin Wolf - is another recent victim.]

Stiglitz: No Time for a Trade War

Joseph Stiglitz warns against unilateral sanctions against China in retaliation for its currency policy:

No Time for a Trade War, by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Commentary. Project Syndicate: The battle with the United States over China’s exchange rate continues. When the Great Recession began, many worried that protectionism would rear its ugly head. ... But ... protectionism was contained, partly due to the World Trade Organization.
Continuing economic weakness ... risks a new round of protectionism. In America, for example, more than one in six workers who would like a full-time job can’t find one.
These were among the risks associated with America’s insufficient stimulus, which was designed to placate members of Congress as much as it was to revive the economy. With soaring deficits, a second stimulus appears unlikely, and, with monetary policy at its limits and inflation hawks being barely kept at bay, there is little hope of help from that department, either. So protectionism is taking pride of place.
The US Treasury has been charged by Congress to assess whether China is a “currency manipulator.” ...[T]he very concept of “currency manipulation” itself is flawed: all governments take actions that directly or indirectly affect the exchange rate. Reckless budget deficits can lead to a weak currency; so can low interest rates. Until the recent crisis in Greece, the US benefited from a weak dollar/euro exchange rate. Should Europeans have accused the US of “manipulating” the exchange rate to expand exports at its expense?
Although US politicians focus on the bilateral trade deficit with China – which is persistently large – what matters is the multilateral balance. ... Many factors other than exchange rates affect a country’s trade balance.  A key determinant is national savings. America’s multilateral trade deficit will not be significantly narrowed until America saves significantly more...
Adjustment in the exchange rate is likely simply to shift to where America buys its textiles and apparel – from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, rather than China. Meanwhile, an increase in the exchange rate is likely to contribute to inequality in China, as its poor farmers face increasing competition from America’s highly subsidized farms. This is the real trade distortion in the global economy – one in which millions of poor people in developing countries are hurt as America helps some of the world’s richest farmers.
During the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, the renminbi’s stability played an important role in stabilizing the region. So, too, the renminbi’s stability has helped the region maintain strong growth, from which the world as a whole benefits. ...
But exchange rates do affect the pattern of growth, and it is in China’s own interest to restructure and move away from high dependence on export-led growth. China recognizes that its currency needs to appreciate over the long run, and politicizing the speed at which it does so has been counterproductive. ...
Since China’s multilateral surplus is the economic issue..., the US should seek a multilateral, rules-based solution. Imposing unilateral duties after unilaterally labeling China a “currency manipulator” would undermine the multilateral system, with little payoff. China might respond by imposing duties on those American products effectively directly or indirectly subsidized by America’s massive bailouts of its banks and car companies.
No one wins from a trade war. So America should be wary of igniting one in the midst of an uncertain global recovery – as popular as it might be with politicians whose constituents are justly concerned about high unemployment, and as easy as it is to look for blame elsewhere. Unfortunately, this global crisis was made in America, and America must look inward...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

China Says It Will Not Adjust Exchange Rate

China's not budging:

China Says It Will Not Adjust Policy on the Exchange Rate, by Sewell Chan, NY Times: Despite mounting pressure in Congress for the Obama administration to declare China a currency manipulator, the Chinese government is giving no indication that it will change its exchange rate policy.
After meeting with officials at the Treasury and Commerce Departments on Wednesday, China’s deputy commerce minister, Zhong Shan, told reporters, “The Chinese government will not succumb to foreign pressures to adjust our exchange rate.”
Mr. Zhong reiterated a statement this month by the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, who said he did not believe the currency, the renminbi, was undervalued. ...
Mr. Zhong said that “the basic stability of the renminbi” was generally beneficial, because “a great surge in the value of the renminbi would hurt the economies of developing countries, especially the least-developed countries.” ...
China’s position has raised the ire of members of both parties in Congress, who say that the exchange-rate problem is holding back job growth in the United States. Two senators, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, have introduced legislation that would effectively compel the Treasury to cite the Chinese currency for “misalignment.” The Treasury has not found China to be manipulating its currency since 1994...
With unemployment near 10 percent in the United States, Congress has seemingly run out of patience with that argument.
“We’re fed up,” Mr. Graham said on Tuesday. “China’s mercantilist policies are hurting the rest of the world, not just America. It helped create the global recession that we’re in. The Chinese want to be treated as a developing country, but they’re a global giant, the leading exporter in the world.”
The Senate bill would let the Commerce Department retaliate against currency misalignment by imposing duties or tariffs. “The only thing that will make China move is tough legislation,” Mr. Schumer said.
The two senators pointed to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed research organization, saying the growing trade deficit between China and the United States resulted in the elimination or displacement of 2.4 million American jobs between 2001 and 2008. ...

Krugman on this topic: Taking On China, Chinese New Year, World Out of Balance, The Chinese Disconnect, More.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Paul Krugman: Taking on China

Paul Krugman says it's time to take a stand against China's currency policy:

Taking on China, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Tensions are rising over Chinese economic policy, and rightly so: China’s policy of keeping its currency, the renminbi, undervalued has become a significant drag on global economic recovery. Something must be done. ...
Today, China is adding more than $30 billion a month to its $2.4 trillion hoard of reserves. ... This is the most distortionary exchange rate policy any major nation has ever followed.
And it’s a policy that seriously damages the rest of the world. Most of the world’s large economies are stuck in a liquidity trap — deeply depressed, but unable to generate a recovery by cutting interest rates because the relevant rates are already near zero. China, by engineering an unwarranted trade surplus, is in effect imposing an anti-stimulus on these economies, which they can’t offset.
So how should we respond? First of all, the U.S. Treasury Department must stop fudging and obfuscating.
Twice a year, by law, Treasury must issue a report identifying nations that “manipulate the rate of exchange between their currency and the United States dollar...” ... Treasury has been ... unwilling to take action on the renminbi... Instead, it has spent the past six or seven years pretending not to see the obvious.
Will the next report, due April 15, continue this tradition? Stay tuned.
If Treasury does find Chinese currency manipulation,... we have to get past a common misunderstanding ... that the Chinese have us over a barrel because we don’t dare provoke China into dumping its dollar assets.
What you have to ask is, What would happen if China tried to sell a large share of its U.S. assets? Would interest rates soar? Short-term U.S. interest rates wouldn’t change: they’re being kept near zero by the Fed... Long-term rates might rise slightly, but ... the Fed could offset any interest-rate impact of a Chinese pullback by expanding its own purchases of long-term bonds.
It’s true that if China dumped its U.S. assets the value of the dollar would fall against other major currencies... But that would be a good thing ... since it would make our goods more competitive and reduce our trade deficit. On the other hand, it would be a bad thing for China, which would suffer large losses on its dollar holdings. In short, right now America has China over a barrel, not the other way around.
So we have no reason to fear China. But what should we do?
Some still argue that we must reason gently with China, not confront it. But we’ve been reasoning with China for years ... and gotten nowhere: on Sunday Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, declared — absurdly — that his nation’s currency is not undervalued. ... And Mr. Wen accused other nations of doing what China actually does, seeking to weaken their currencies “just for the purposes of increasing their own exports.”
But if sweet reason won’t work, what’s the alternative? In 1971 the United States dealt with a similar but much less severe problem of foreign undervaluation by imposing a temporary 10 percent surcharge on imports, which was removed a few months later after Germany, Japan and other nations raised the dollar value of their currencies. At this point, it’s hard to see China changing its policies unless faced with the threat of similar action — except that this time the surcharge would have to be much larger, say 25 percent.
I don’t propose this turn to policy hardball lightly. But Chinese currency policy is adding materially to the world’s economic problems at a time when those problems are already very severe. It’s time to take a stand.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rodrik: Will China Rule the World?

Dani Rodrik:

Will China Rule the World?, by Dani Rodrik, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Thirty years ago, China had a tiny footprint on the global economy and little influence outside its borders... Today, the country is a remarkable economic power: the world’s manufacturing workshop, its foremost financier, a leading investor across the globe from Africa to Latin America, and, increasingly, a major source of research and development. ...
All of which raises the question of whether China will eventually replace the US as the world’s hegemon, the global economy’s rule setter and enforcer. In a fascinating new book, revealingly titled When China Rules the World,... Martin Jacques is unequivocal: if you think China will be integrated smoothly into a liberal, capitalist, and democratic world system,... you are in for a big surprise. Not only is China the next economic superpower, but the world order that it will construct will look very different from what we have had under American leadership.
Americans and Europeans blithely assume that China will become more like them as its economy develops and its population gets richer. This is a mirage, Jacques says. The Chinese and their government are wedded to a different conception of society and polity: community-based rather than individualist, state-centric rather than liberal, authoritarian rather than democratic. China has 2,000 years of history as a distinct civilization from which to draw strength. It will not simply fold under Western values and institutions.
A world order centered on China will reflect Chinese values rather than Western ones, Jacques argues. ... Before any of this comes to pass, however, China will have to continue its rapid economic growth and maintain its social cohesion and political unity. None of this is guaranteed. ... China’s stability hinges critically on its government’s ability to deliver steady economic gains to the vast majority of the population. China is the only country ... where anything less than 8% growth ... is believed to be dangerous because it would unleash social unrest. ...
The authoritarian nature of the political regime is at the core of this fragility. ... The trouble is that ... China’s growth currently relies on an undervalued currency and a huge trade surplus. This is unsustainable, and sooner or later it will precipitate a major confrontation with the US (and Europe). There are no easy ways out of this dilemma. China will likely have to settle for lower growth.
If China surmounts these hurdles and does eventually become the world’s predominant economic power, globalization will, indeed, take on Chinese characteristics. Democracy and human rights will then likely lose their luster as global norms. That is the bad news.

The good news is that a Chinese global order will display greater respect for national sovereignty and more tolerance for national diversity. There will be greater room for experimentation with different economic models.

Update: More on China -- Google is considering shutting down, its search engine services in China, due to "attacks and the surveillance" on Google's email accounts (in particular, those held by human rights activists in China) and "attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web."

Friday, January 01, 2010

Paul Krugman: Chinese New Year

Paul Krugman urges China to reconsider its currency policy:

Chinese New Year, Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...China has become a major financial and trade power. But it doesn’t act like other big economies. Instead, it follows a mercantilist policy, keeping its trade surplus artificially high. And in today’s depressed world, that policy is, to put it bluntly, predatory.
Here’s how it works: Unlike the dollar, the euro or the yen, whose values fluctuate freely, China’s currency is pegged ... at about 6.8 yuan to the dollar. At this exchange rate, Chinese manufacturing has a large cost advantage over its rivals, leading to huge trade surpluses.
Under normal circumstances, the inflow of dollars from those surpluses would push up the value of China’s currency... But China’s government restricts capital inflows,... buys up dollars and parks them abroad, adding to a $2 trillion-plus hoard of foreign exchange reserves. ...
In the past, China’s accumulation of foreign reserves, many of which were invested in American bonds, was arguably doing us a favor by keeping interest rates low — although what we did with those low interest rates was mainly to inflate a housing bubble. But right now the world is awash in cheap money... Short-term interest rates are close to zero... China’s bond purchases make little or no difference.
Meanwhile, that trade surplus drains much-needed demand away from a depressed world economy. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that for the next couple of years Chinese mercantilism may end up reducing U.S. employment by around 1.4 million jobs.
The Chinese refuse to acknowledge the problem. Recently Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, dismissed foreign complaints: “On one hand, you are asking for the yuan to appreciate, and on the other hand, you are taking all kinds of protectionist measures.” Indeed: other countries are taking (modest) protectionist measures precisely because China refuses to let its currency rise. And more such measures are entirely appropriate.
Or are they? I usually hear two reasons for not confronting China over its policies. Neither holds water.
First, there’s the claim that we can’t confront the Chinese because they would wreak havoc with the U.S. economy by dumping their hoard of dollars. This is all wrong, and not just because ... the Chinese would inflict large losses on themselves. The larger point is ... China has little or no financial leverage.
Again, right now the world is awash in cheap money. So if China were to start selling dollars, there’s no reason to think it would significantly raise U.S. interest rates. It would probably weaken the dollar against other currencies — but that would be good, not bad, for U.S. competitiveness and employment. ...
Second, there’s the claim that protectionism is always a bad thing... If that’s what you believe, however, you learned Econ 101 from the wrong people — because when unemployment is high..., the usual rules don’t apply.
Let me quote from a classic paper by the late Paul Samuelson...: “With employment less than full ... all the debunked mercantilistic arguments” — that is, claims that nations who subsidize their exports effectively steal jobs from other countries — “turn out to be valid.” He then went on argue that persistently misaligned exchange rates create “genuine problems for free-trade apologetics.” The best answer to these problems is getting exchange rates back to where they ought to be. But that’s exactly what China is refusing to let happen.
The bottom line is that Chinese mercantilism is a growing problem, and the victims of that mercantilism have little to lose from a trade confrontation. So I’d urge China’s government to reconsider its stubbornness. Otherwise, the very mild protectionism it’s currently complaining about will be the start of something much bigger.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rodrik: Making Room for China

Dani Rodrik says that if China wants to pursue industrial policy, as he believes it should, its membership in the WTO leaves it little choice but to keep its currency undervalued:

Making Room for China, by Dani Rodrik, Commentary, Project Syndicate: China’s undervalued currency and huge trade surplus pose great risks to the world economy. They threaten a major protectionist backlash in the United States and Europe; and they undermine the recovery in developing and emerging markets. Left unchecked, they will generate growing acrimony between China and other countries. But the solution is not nearly as simple as some pundits make it out to be.
Listen to what comes out of Washington and Brussels, or read the financial press, and you would think you were witnessing a straightforward morality play. It is in China’s own interests, these officials and commentators say, to let the renminbi appreciate. ...
This story casts China’s policymakers in the role of evil and misguided currency manipulators, who, inexplicably, choose to harm not only the rest of the world, but their own society as well. In fact, an appreciating renminbi would likely deal a serious blow to China’s growth, which essentially relies on a simple, time-tested recipe: encourage industrialization. Currency undervaluation is currently the Chinese government’s main instrument for subsidizing manufacturing and other tradable sectors...
Before it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, China had a wider range of policy instruments for achieving this end. It could promote its industries through high tariffs, explicit subsidies, domestic content requirements on foreign firms, investment incentives, and many other forms of industrial policy. But WTO membership has made it difficult, if not impossible, to resort to these traditional forms of industrial support. ... Currency undervaluation has become a substitute. ...
The trouble with currency undervaluation is that, unlike conventional industrial policy, it spills over into the trade balance. ... Indeed, China’s current-account imbalance ... began its inexorable rise in 2001 – precisely when the country joined the WTO.
Given that WTO rules tie China’s hands on industrial policy, how much of a growth penalty would the Chinese economy suffer if the renminbi were to appreciate? My estimates, crude as they are, suggest a steep trade-off. An appreciation of 25% – roughly the extent by which the renminbi currently is undervalued – would reduce China’s growth by somewhat more than two percentage points. This is a significant effect... [I]t would be a tragedy if the most potent poverty-reduction engine the world has ever known were to experience a notable slowdown. ...
So we are left, it seems, with two equally unappetizing options. China can maintain its currency practices, but at the risk of large global macroeconomic imbalances and a major political backlash in the US and elsewhere. Or it can let its currency appreciate, at the risk of inducing a growth slowdown and political and social unrest at home. It is not clear that advocates of this option have fully comprehended its potentially severe adverse consequences.
There is, of course, a third path, but it would require re-writing the WTO’s rules. If China were allowed a free hand with industrial policies, it could promote manufactures directly while allowing the renminbi to appreciate. This way the increased demand for its industrial output would come from domestic rather than foreign consumers. It is not a pretty solution, but it is the only one. ...

One of the arguments for maintaining an undervalued currency given above is that "it would be a tragedy if the most potent poverty-reduction engine the world has ever known were to experience a notable slowdown." I don't find the poverty reduction argument very compelling. I am all for reducing poverty, but if China's policy reduces poverty within its borders at the expense of other developing countries with poverty problems that are just as bad or worse, how does that justify maintaining an undervalued currency? As Rodrik notes, China's currency policy serves to "undermine the recovery in developing and emerging markets." And it also takes jobs from those countries during normal times. Are China's poor somehow more deserving than the poor in other countries?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Dangers of an Overheated China"

Tyler Cowen:

Dangers of an Overheated China, by Tyler Cowen, Commentary, NY Times: ...Several hundred million Chinese peasants have moved from the countryside to the cities over the last 30 years... To help make this work, the Chinese government has subsidized its exporters by pegging the renminbi at an unnaturally low rate to the dollar...; additional subsidies have included direct credit allocation and preferential treatment for coastal enterprises.
These aren’t the recommended policies you would find in a basic economics text, but it’s hard to argue with success. ... Those same subsidies, however, have spurred excess capacity... China has been building factories and production capacity in virtually every sector of its economy... Automobiles, steel, semiconductors, cement, aluminum and real estate all show signs of too much capacity. ...
Regional officials have an incentive to prop up local enterprises and production statistics... Chinese fiscal and credit policies are geared toward jobs and political stability, and thus the authorities shy away from revealing which projects are most troubled or should be canceled.
Put all of this together and there is a very real possibility of trouble. ... What will the consequences be ... if and when the Chinese economic miracle encounters a major stumble? A lot of Chinese business ventures will stop being profitable, and layoffs and unrest will most likely rise. The Chinese government may crack down further on dissent. The Chinese public may wonder whether its future lies with capitalism after all, and foreign investors in China will become more nervous.
In economic terms, the prices of Chinese exports will probably fall, as overextended businesses compete to justify their capital investments... American businesses will find it harder to compete with Chinese companies, and there will be deflationary pressures in both countries. And ... the Chinese ... may have less to lend to the United States government. ... The United States will face higher borrowing costs, and its fiscal position may very quickly become unsustainable.
That’s not so much a prediction as a very possible contingency, and we should be prepared for it. For now, we should avoid two big mistakes. The first would be to assume that just because borrowing costs are now low, we can postpone fiscal responsibility and keep running up the tab — with the aid of Chinese lending, of course. The history of financial crises shows that turning points can come swiftly...
The second mistake would be to demand too many concessions from the Chinese. What we see in the numbers today are a growing China... Yet there’s a real chance that, soon enough, Chinese economic weakness will be a bigger problem than was Chinese economic strength.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

links for 2009-11-18

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"China and the American Jobs Machine"

Robert Reich says China won't be abandoning its currency policy anytime soon:

China and the American Jobs Machine, by Robert Reich, Commentary, WSJ: President Barack Obama says he wants to "rebalance" the economic relationship between China and the U.S. as part of his plan to restart the American jobs machine. "We cannot go back," he said in September, "to an era where the Chinese . . . just are selling everything to us, we're taking out a bunch of credit-card debt or home equity loans, but we're not selling anything to them." He hopes that hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers will make up for the inability of American consumers to return to debt-binge spending.
This is wishful thinking. True, the Chinese market is huge and growing fast. ... But in fact China is heading in the opposite direction of "rebalancing." Its productive capacity keeps soaring, but Chinese consumers are taking home a shrinking proportion of the total economy. Last year, personal consumption in China amounted to only 35% of the Chinese economy; 10 years ago consumption was almost 50%. Capital investment, by contrast, rose to 44% from 35% over the decade. ...
Chinese companies are plowing their rising profits back into more productive capacity—additional factories, more equipment, new technologies. China's massive $600 billion stimulus package has been directed at further enlarging China's productive capacity... So where will this productive capacity go if not to Chinese consumers? Net exports to other nations, especially the U.S. and Europe. ...
The Chinese government also wants to create more jobs in China, and it will continue to rely on exports. Each year, tens of millions of poor Chinese pour into large cities from the countryside in pursuit of better-paying work. If they don't find it, China risks riots and other upheaval. Massive disorder is one of the greatest risks facing China's governing elite. That elite would much rather create export jobs, even at the cost of subsidizing foreign buyers, than allow the yuan to rise and thereby risk job shortages at home.
To this extent, China's export policy is really a social policy, designed to maintain order. Despite the Obama administration's entreaties, China will continue to peg the yuan to the dollar... This is costly to China, of course, but for the purposes of industrial and social policy, China figures the cost is worth it. ...

While China's currency policy is certainly a worthy topic for discussion, lately we are spending a lot of time pointing our fingers at others and blaming them for our problems rather than engaging in the more difficult task of getting our own house in order. I'm not saying that we should ignore things that unfairly disadvantage us, whatever those might be, just that a continued focus on external factors provides a convenient excuse to avoid going through the difficult changes needed to reform our own economy, an excuse that can be exploited by powerful interest groups opposed to needed change (though Reich at least touches on the US side of the equation in a part I left out).

Yes, China needs to change its currency policy, and the fact that it won't or can't change will probably lead to further economic imbalances, perhaps to dangerous levels, and cause increased political tension in the future. But I hope we don't allow the financial industry and others wishing to deflect blame for the crisis and avoid stricter regulation to use the controversy over China's currency policy to divert our attention elsewhere and alter the narrative about how we got into this mess.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Paul Krugman: World Out of Balance

Paul Krugman reiterates that China's currency policy must change:

World Out of Balance, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: International travel by world leaders is mainly about making symbolic gestures. Nobody expects President Obama to come back from China with major new agreements, on economic policy or anything else.
But let’s hope that when the cameras aren’t rolling Mr. Obama and his hosts engage in some frank talk about currency policy. For the problem of international trade imbalances is about to get substantially worse. And there’s a potentially ugly confrontation looming unless China mends its ways. ...
Despite huge trade surpluses and the desire of many investors to buy into this fast-growing economy — forces that should have strengthened the renminbi, China’s currency — Chinese authorities have kept that currency persistently weak. They’ve done this mainly by trading renminbi for dollars, which they have accumulated in vast quantities.
And in recent months China has carried out what amounts to a beggar-thy-neighbor devaluation, keeping the yuan-dollar exchange rate fixed even as the dollar has fallen sharply against other major currencies. This has given Chinese exporters a growing competitive advantage over their rivals, especially producers in other developing countries.
What makes China’s currency policy especially problematic is the depressed state of the world economy. ... China’s weak-currency policy exacerbates the problem, in effect siphoning much-needed demand away from the rest of the world into the pockets of artificially competitive Chinese exporters.
But why do I say that this problem is about to get much worse? Because for the past year the true scale of the China problem has been masked by temporary factors. ...
That, at any rate, is the argument made in a new paper by Richard Baldwin and Daria Taglioni of the Graduate Institute, Geneva. As they note, trade imbalances, both China’s surplus and America’s deficit, have recently been much smaller than they were a few years ago. But, they argue, “these global imbalance improvements are mostly illusory — the transitory side effect of the greatest trade collapse the world has ever seen.”
Indeed, the 2008-9 plunge in world trade was one for the record books. What it mainly reflected was the fact that modern trade is dominated by sales of durable manufactured goods — and in the face of severe financial crisis and its attendant uncertainty, both consumers and corporations postponed purchases of anything that wasn’t needed immediately. How did this reduce the U.S. trade deficit? Imports of goods like automobiles collapsed; so did some U.S. exports; but because we came into the crisis importing much more than we exported, the net effect was a smaller trade gap.
But with the financial crisis abating, this process is going into reverse. Last week’s U.S. trade report showed a sharp increase in the trade deficit between August and September. And there will be many more reports along those lines.
So picture this: month after month of headlines juxtaposing soaring U.S. trade deficits and Chinese trade surpluses with the suffering of unemployed American workers. If I were the Chinese government, I’d be really worried about that prospect.
Unfortunately, the Chinese don’t seem to get it: rather than face up to the need to change their currency policy, they’ve taken to lecturing the United States, telling us to raise interest rates and curb fiscal deficits — that is, to make our unemployment problem even worse.
And I’m not sure the Obama administration gets it, either. The administration’s statements on Chinese currency policy seem pro forma, lacking any sense of urgency.
That needs to change. I don’t begrudge Mr. Obama the banquets and the photo ops; they’re part of his job. But behind the scenes he better be warning the Chinese that they’re playing a dangerous game.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

"Why the Renminbi has to Rise to Address Imbalances"

Martin Feldstein joins those arguing that China must let the value of the renminbi rise:

Why the renminbi has to rise to address imbalances, by Martin Feldstein, Commentary, Financial Times: Global leaders have agreed reducing global imbalances is a priority. ...[T]hat agreement means the US must raise its national saving to be less dependent on foreign funds. China must lift domestic spending to maintain high employment without producing so many exports.
Some progress is happening on both fronts. The US household savings rate has risen, driven by the need for US households to rebuild wealth. Corporate retained earnings have also begun to rise. But increasing private saving is not enough ... if federal deficits remain high. The Obama administration must agree a budget that will reduce deficits in the years ahead.
China has succeeded in raising its domestic spending through fiscal incentives and an explosive growth of credit. ... Chinese government spending has also increased domestic demand via major rises in infrastructure investment and building low income housing.
But while these two shifts are necessary to reduce global imbalances, they are not enough..., exchange rates must also adjust.
The dollar must decline relative to other currencies to make US products more attractive to foreign buyers and to cause Americans to substitute US goods and services for imports. ... That is why the recent decline in the dollar relative to the euro, the yen and other currencies is ... natural and desirable...
Unfortunately, the Chinese government has not allowed the renminbi to appreciate. ... With the dollar falling relative to other major currencies, the fixed exchange rate of the renminbi relative to the dollar has caused the Chinese currency to fall relative to the euro, yen and other currencies. The trade-weighted value of the renminbi has therefore been declining, making Chinese exports more attractive and foreign goods more expensive in China.
The result has been an increase in China’s exports from $276bn in the second quarter of the current year to $325bn in the third quarter. This helps lift GDP and jobs in China but prevents reducing global imbalances.
China’s policy of keeping the renminbi weak means that the US dollar must decline more rapidly against the euro, yen and other currencies to achieve the same overall trade-weighted fall of the dollar. China’s weak renminbi policy therefore not only prevents remedying China’s large current account surplus but also reduces Europe’s exports. ...

Although China has agreed to take steps to reduce global imbalances and its trade surplus, it is reluctant to let its currency rise. ... Fortunately, the Chinese economy is expanding rapidly and its growth is becoming less dependent on exports. When it has the confidence to allow the renminbi to rise, we will be on the path to reduced global imbalances.

[Traveling: Scheduled to post at preset time.]

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"Death by Renminbi"

Thomas Palley says China's currency policy must change:

Death by Renminbi, by Thomas I. Palley, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Over the last several weeks, the dollar's depreciation against the euro and yen has grabbed global attention. In a normal world, the dollar's weakening would be welcome, as it would help the United States come to grips with its unsustainable trade deficit.

But, in a world where China links its currency to the dollar at an undervalued parity, the dollar's depreciation risks major global economic damage that will further complicate recovery from the current worldwide recession.

A realignment of the dollar is long overdue. Its overvaluation began with the Mexican peso crisis of 1994, and was officially enshrined by the "strong dollar" policy... That policy produced short-term consumption gains for America,... but it has inflicted major long-term damage ... and contributed to the current crisis.

The overvalued dollar caused the U.S. economy to hemorrhage spending on imports, jobs via off-shoring, and investment to countries with undervalued currencies.

In today's era of globalization, marked by flexible and mobile production networks, exchange rates affect more than exports and imports. They also affect the location of production and investment.

China has been a major beneficiary of America's strong-dollar policy, to which it wedded its own "weak renminbi" policy. As a result, China's trade surplus with the U.S. rose... The undervalued renminbi has also made China a major recipient of foreign direct investment, even leading the world in 2002 ― a staggering achievement for a developing country.

The scale of recent U.S. trade deficits was always unsustainable...
But China retains its undervalued exchange rate policy... When combined with China's rapid growth in manufacturing capacity, this pattern promises to create a new round of global imbalances.

China's policy creates adversarial currency competition with the rest of the world. ... Furthermore, the problem is not only America's. China's currency policy gives it a competitive advantage relative to other countries, allowing it to displace their exports to the U.S. ... Yet a mix of political factors has led to stunning refusal by policymakers to confront China.

On the U.S. side, a lingering Cold War mentality, combined with the presumption of U.S. economic superiority, has meant that economic issues are still deemed subservient to geo-political concerns. That explains the neglect of U.S.-China economic relations, a neglect that is now dangerous to the U.S., given its weakened economic condition.

With regard to the rest of the world, many find it easy to blame the U.S., often owing to resentment at its perceived arrogance. Moreover, there is an old mentality among Southern countries that they can do no wrong in their relationships with the North...

Finally, all countries likely have been shortsighted, imagining that silence will gain them commercial favors from China. But that silence merely allows China to exploit the community of nations.

The world economy has paid dearly for complicity with and silence about the economic policies of the last 15 years... It will pay still more if policymakers remain passive about China's destructive currency policy.

Our problems are not China's fault.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"China to Investigate US Car Subsidies"

China sends a message:

China to investigate US car subsidies, by Sarah O’Connor: China is preparing to launch a trade investigation into whether US carmakers are being unfairly subsidised by the US government...
The move comes at a time of heightened trade tensions between the two countries after the US imposed duties on Chinese tires last month. Many warned this would prompt Beijing to retaliate.
Few vehicles are actually exported from the US to China, but the move would have symbolic power by turning the tables on Washington. ... The investigation could lead to import duties. ...
China has already told the US that it has received a petition for an investigation, which ... would formally launch on Wednesday. Before that, the two countries will negotiate. Top US government officials are already in China for trade talks this week, and Barack Obama, US president, is due to visit the country next month.
China had notified the US it had received anti-dumping and countervailing duty petitions on cars, a spokeswoman for the United States Trade Representative said.
World Trade Organization rules require China to invite the US to consult on the countervailing duty petition before initiating any investigation... The countries expect to consult over coming days.  ...
China has received an anti-dumping petition as well, which asks for investigation into whether US car exports are being sold at unfairly low pries. ...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

South-South Trade Tensions

Brian Hoyt of the World Bank's Crisis Talk blog says increasing trade tensions between the emerging markets of the Global South may prove to be problematic:

South-South Trade Tensions, by Brian Hoyt: John Authers argues that the newsworthy economic story of late isn't dollar weakness; rather, it is the weak renminbi:
Many, if not most, hopes for global recovery are pinned on China buying goods from countries such as Brazil. Commodity prices, a key driver of equities and forex rates, also move in response to the new orders received by China's manufacturers.
This currency regime makes it far harder for such countries to sell to China. So it is no wonder that currencies are back at the top of the agenda.
...China has been building stronger trade relations with the Global South for quite some time. It is now South Africa's top export destination. But many of these partnerships are built around China purchasing commodities, and selling manufactured goods. With a weakening currency, China is likely to purchase fewer non-commodity goods from its trading partners. This may lead to growing trade tensions, particularly with countries who are not endowed with commodities.
Much attention has been paid to the importance of the economic relationship between China and the United States, or "Chimerica" (See this week's Economist cover story. Or Paul Krugman). Rising trade tensions between the two economic powers could spell doom for the global economy.
Yet, one should not discount the importance of emerging market trade relations, and the possible tensions that may arise. Today's Wall St Journal reports of Indian grievances toward China's trade practices:
Trade friction is growing between India and China. India leads all members of the World Trade Organization in antidumping cases against China. India has banned imports of Chinese toys, milk and chocolate, citing safety concerns...
Heavy industries minister Vilasrao Deshmukh recently told reporters, "We don't want India to be turned into a dumping ground". Yet, India's actions have had little effect on the growing trade imbalance between the two countries:
Alas, trade tensions are not only worrisome between the West and the East. They may prove problematic between the emerging markets of the Global South.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Paul Krugman: The Chinese Disconnect

"China is stealing other peoples’ jobs":

The Chinese Disconnect, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Senior monetary officials usually talk in code. So when Ben Bernanke ... spoke recently about Asia, international imbalances and the financial crisis, he didn’t specifically criticize China’s outrageous currency policy.
But he didn’t have to: everyone got the subtext. China’s bad behavior is posing a growing threat to the rest of the world economy. The only question now is what the world — and, in particular, the United States — will do about it.
Some background: The value of China’s currency, unlike, say, the value of the British pound, isn’t determined by supply and demand. Instead, Chinese authorities enforced that target by buying or selling their currency in the foreign exchange market — a policy made possible by restrictions on the ability of private investors to move their money either into or out of the country.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with such a policy, especially in a still poor country whose financial system might all too easily be destabilized by volatile flows of hot money. ... The crucial question, however, is whether the target value of the yuan is reasonable. ...
Many economists, myself included, believe that China’s asset-buying spree helped inflate the housing bubble, setting the stage for the global financial crisis. But China’s insistence on keeping the yuan/dollar rate fixed, even when the dollar declines, may be doing even more harm now.
Although there has been a lot of doomsaying about the falling dollar, that decline is actually both natural and desirable. America needs a weaker dollar to help reduce its trade deficit, and it’s getting that weaker dollar as nervous investors, who flocked into the presumed safety of U.S. debt at the peak of the crisis, have started putting their money to work elsewhere.
But China has been keeping its currency pegged to the dollar — which means that a country with a huge trade surplus and a rapidly recovering economy, a country whose currency should be rising in value, is in effect engineering a large devaluation instead.
And that’s a particularly bad thing to do at a time when the world economy remains deeply depressed due to inadequate overall demand. By pursuing a weak-currency policy, China is siphoning some of that inadequate demand away from other nations, which is hurting growth almost everywhere. The biggest victims, by the way, are probably workers in other poor countries. In normal times, I’d be among the first to reject claims that China is stealing other peoples’ jobs, but right now it’s the simple truth.
So what are we going to do?
U.S. officials have been extremely cautious about confronting the China problem, to such an extent that last week the Treasury Department, while expressing “concerns,” certified in a required report to Congress that China is not — repeat not — manipulating its currency. They’re kidding, right?
The thing is, right now this caution makes little sense. Suppose the Chinese were to do what Wall Street and Washington seem to fear and start selling some of their dollar hoard. Under current conditions, this would actually help the U.S. economy by making our exports more competitive.
In fact, some countries, most notably Switzerland, have been trying to support their economies by selling their own currencies on the foreign exchange market. The United States, mainly for diplomatic reasons, can’t do this; but if the Chinese decide to do it on our behalf, we should send them a thank-you note.
The point is that with the world economy still in a precarious state, beggar-thy-neighbor policies by major players can’t be tolerated. Something must be done about China’s currency.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Fed Chief Cites Trade Imbalances’ Role in Crisis"

Ben Bernanke:

Fed Chief Cites Trade Imbalances’ Role in Crisis, by Edmund Andrews, NY Times: Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said on Monday that global trade imbalances played a central role in the global economic crisis and warned that the both the United States and fast-growing Asian nations needed to do more to prevent them from recurring.
“We were smug,” Mr. Bernanke said of the United States, saying the American financial regulatory system was “inadequate” at managing the immense inflows of cheap money from China and other countries that had huge trade surpluses.
Though the Fed chairman acknowledged that trade imbalances have declined sharply as a result of the crisis, mainly because trade itself plunged, he warned that American foreign indebtedness will aggravate the imbalances once again unless the United States reduces its soaring federal budget deficit.
“The United States must increase its national saving rate,” he said. “The most effective way to accomplish this goal is by establishing a sustainable fiscal trajectory, anchored by a clear commitment to substantially reduce federal deficits over time.” ...
By the same token, he said, Asian countries needed to rely less on exports and more on their consumption at home for their economic growth. One way to increase Asian household consumption, he said, would be for countries like China to increase social insurance programs and reduced the uncertainty that currently hangs over many consumers. ...
With the Asian economy expanding at an annualized rate of 9 percent in the second quarter of this year, and China’s economy expanding at rates of more than 10 percent, Mr. Bernanke said, “Asia appears to be leading the global recovery.”
But the Fed chairman warned that the United States-led crisis was fueled in large part by huge inflows of cheap money to the United States from countries like China that were trying to recycle dollars from their huge trade surpluses.
The Fed chairman noted that global trade and financial imbalances have narrowed considerably since the crisis began... But he cautioned that the imbalances could widen out again as economic growth revives. While the United States has to tighten its belt by saving more and consuming less, China and other Asian countries need to increase their consumer spending in order to promote faster domestic economic growth.
Mr. Bernanke avoided what was in many ways the elephant in the room: the value of the United States dollar. The dollar has dropped sharply in recent weeks against the euro and the Japanese yen, which has helped increase American exports by making them cheaper in some foreign markets. But the dollar has not budged in more than a year against China’s renmimbi...

There were three important factors in the crisis, global imbalances (Bernanke's savings glut), low interest rate policy by the Fed, and the failure of markets and regulators to provide the checks and balances necessary to prevent the crisis from occurring. The global imbalances combined with the Fed's low interest rate policy led to the massive build up of global liquidity looking for a safe, high return home, and the market and regulatory failures allowed the extra liquidity and the false promise of high, safe returns to concentrate risk in the mortgage markets.

Bernanke focuses on two of these causes of the crisis, global imbalances and regulatory problems (market failures get less attention), but he does not focus on the Fed's role in the crisis at all. So let me say that I hope the Fed is more willing to consider popping bubbles as they inflate than it has been in the past. But that is not the main point I want to make.

The crisis, according to Bernanke, occurred when the excess global liquidity overwhelmed financial markets -- it was too much for either regulators and markets to handle. Think of a hurricane hitting a city that is so strong and powerful that it overwhelms levees and other flood/damage control mechanisms. That's essentially Bernanke's explanation, the shock was too big for the mechanisms we had in place to control the damage. One solution to the hurricane problem is to hope that such large shocks don't happen again and simply rebuild the same defenses as before, and another response is to recognize that such shocks will occur every so often and to build the stronger defensive measures needed to get ready.

Bernanke acknowledges that the defenses, i.e. the regulation of financial markets, need to be strengthened, but he seems to place a lot of emphasis on reducing the size of future shocks (reduce the budget deficit, have Asian countries consume more to reduce imbalances, etc.). I think that is fine, we should reduce the danger as much as we can, but we need to accept that global imbalances are possible, that a shock of this magnitude could and probably will happen again at some point in the future, and we need to make sure that markets don't fail like they did this time (i.e. we need to fix the bad incentives in these markets). But more importantly, we need to strengthen our regulatory defenses in anticipation of the next big shock. If it's fair to blame the government for not having levees, etc. ready for Katrina, if we insist that the defenses need to be strengthened going forward, then the same argument can be made in financial markets. Despite our best efforts to reduce the chances that a large shock will occur through deficit reduction and higher domestic saving rates, we should expect that global imbalances will rear their head again at some point, and the system cannot be overwhelmed again like it was this time.

For that reason, I'm a bit disappointed in Bernanke's willingness to point fingers at external causes and say other countries must change their consumption habits, or to blame budget deficits, at a time when financial regulation is coming onto the legislative agenda (though he didn't say anything about the exchange rate). Those are important problems and I don't mean to dismiss them, but right now financial regulation is being considered by congress, and it's essential that we get the regulations in place that can withstand the next big shock. Blaming external forces for the crisis will make it easier for opponents of regulation to blame China and other countries, and that gives legislators an excuse to give in to pressure (e.g. campaign contributions) from the financial industry to go soft on regulatory changes.

Update: Paul Krugman comments on Bernanke's remarks: America’s Chinese disease (not quite what you think).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Global Imbalances and the Financial Crisis: Products of Common Causes"

Maurice Obstfeld and Kenneth Rogoff attempt to sort out the role that global imbalances played in the financial crisis. This is the introduction to their paper:

Global Imbalances and the Financial Crisis: Products of Common Causes, by Maurice Obstfeld and Kenneth Rogoff, October 2009 (Conference Draft): In my view … it is impossible to understand this crisis without reference to the global imbalances in trade and capital flows that began in the latter half of the 1990s. --Ben S. Bernanke1
Introduction Until the outbreak of financial crisis in August 2007, the mid-2000s was a period of strong economic performance throughout the world. Economic growth was generally robust; inflation generally low; international trade and especially financial flows expanded; and the emerging and developing world experienced widespread progress and a notable absence of crises.
This apparently favorable equilibrium was underpinned, however, by three trends that appeared increasingly unsustainable as time went by. First, real estate values were rising at a high rate in many countries, including the world’s largest economy, the United States. Second, a number of countries were simultaneously running high and rising current account deficits, including the world’s largest economy, the United States. Third, leverage had built up to extraordinary levels in many sectors across the globe, notably among consumers in the United States and Europe and financial entities in many countries. Indeed, we ourselves began pointing to the potential risks of the “global imbalances” in a series of papers beginning in 2001.2 As we will argue, the global imbalances did not cause the leverage and housing bubbles, but they were a critically important codeterminant.
In addition to being the world’s largest economy, the United States had the world’s highest rate of private homeownership and the world’s deepest, most dynamic financial markets. And those markets, having been progressively deregulated since the 1970s, were confronted by a particularly fragmented and ineffective system of government prudential oversight. This mix of ingredients, as we now know, was deadly.
Controversy remains about the precise connection between global imbalances and the global financial meltdown. Some commentators argue that external imbalances had little or nothing to do with the crisis, which instead was the result of financial regulatory failures and policy errors, mainly on the part of the U.S. Others put forward various mechanisms through which global imbalances are claimed to have played a prime role in causing the financial collapse. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson argued, for example, that the high savings of China, oil exporters, and other surplus countries depressed global real interest rates, leading investors to scramble for yield and underprice risk.3
We too believe that the global imbalances and the financial crisis are intimately connected, but we take a more nuanced stance on the nature of the connections. In our view, both of these phenomena have their origins primarily in economic policies followed in a number of countries in the 2000s (including the United States) and in distortions that influenced the transmission of these policies through financial markets. The United States’ ability to finance macroeconomic imbalances through easy foreign borrowing allowed it to postpone tough policy choices (something that was of course true in many other deficit countries as well). Not only was the U.S. able to borrow in dollars at nominal interest rates kept low by a loose monetary policy. Also, until around the autumn of 2008, exchange-rate and other asset-price movements kept U.S. net foreign liabilities growing at a rate far below the cumulative U.S. current account deficit. On the lending side, China’s ability to sterilize the immense reserve purchases it placed in U.S. markets allowed it to maintain an undervalued currency and postpone rebalancing its own economy. Had seemingly easy postponement options not been available, the subsequent crisis might well have been mitigated, if not contained.4
We certainly do not agree with the many commentators and scholars who argued that the global imbalances were an essentially benign phenomenon, a natural and inevitable corollary of backward financial development in emerging markets. These commentators, including Cooper (2007) and Dooley, Folkerts-Landau, and Garber (2005), as well as Caballero, Farhi, and Gourinchas (2008) and Mendoza, Quadrini, and Rios-Rull (2007), advanced frameworks in which the global imbalances were essentially a “win-win” phenomenon, with developing countries’ residents (including governments) enjoying safety and liquidity for their savings, while rich countries (especially the dollarissuing United States) benefited from easier borrowing terms. The fundamental flaw in these analyses, of course, was the assumption that advanced-country capital markets, especially those of the United States, were fundamentally perfect, and so able to take on ever-increasing leverage risklessly. In our 2001 paper we ourselves underscored this point, identifying the rapid evolution of financial markets as posing new, untested hazards that might be triggered by a rapid change in the underlying equilibrium.5
Bini Smaghi’s (2008) assessment thus seems exactly right to us:
[E]xternal imbalances are often a reflection, and even a prediction, of internal imbalances. [E]conomic policies … should not ignore external imbalances and just assume that they will sort themselves out.6
In this paper we describe our view of how the global imbalances of the 2000s both reflected and magnified the ultimate causal factors behind the recent financial crisis. At the end, we identify policy lessons learned. In effect, the global imbalances posed stress tests for weaknesses in the United States, British, and other advanced-country financial and political systems – tests that those countries did not pass. ...

See also: Why are we in a recession? The Financial Crisis is the Symptom not the Disease! [open link]. The paper argues that the huge increase in the labor supply available to developed countries is the primary force behind our current troubles. Here are parts of the introduction and conclusion:

The impact of globalization is a sharp increase in the developed world’s labor supply. Labor in developing countries – countries with vast pool of grossly underemployed people – can now compete with labor in the developed world without having to relocate in ways not possible earlier. ... [W]e argue that this huge and rapid increase in developed world’s labor supply, triggered by geo-political events and technological innovations, is the major underlying force that is affecting world events today.2 The inability of existing financial and legal institutions in the US and abroad to cope with the events set off by this force is the reason for the current great recession: The inability of emerging economies to absorb savings through domestic investment and consumption caused by inadequate national financial markets and difficulties in enforcing financial contracts through the legal system; the currency controls motivated by immediate national objectives; the inability of the US economy to adjust to the perverse incentives caused by huge moneys inflow leading to a break down of checks and balances at various financial institutions, set the stage for the great recession. The financial crisis was the first symptom. ...

10 The Way Forward The common wisdom is that cheap money and lax supervision of financial institutions led to this financial crisis, and solving that crisis will take us out of the recession. In our view, the financial crisis is just the symptom. The fundamental cause of the crisis is the huge labor supply shock the world has experienced, not the glut in liquidity in money supply.

Recovery will only occur when structural imbalances in global capital flows are corrected, in part through higher saving in developed nations and in part through greater capital flows into developing nations. ...

It may be tempting for those in power to close the door to outsourcing of manufacturing and other activities. While that may provide some immediate relief, it will accentuate other problems...

When millions of World War II soldiers returned home that increased the US labor force of about 60 million workers by almost 25% within a very short period of time. At that time the Department of labor, which certainly had no cause to accentuate the negative, predicted that 12 to 15 million workers would be unemployed.28 That did not happen! We managed that problem well leading to prosperity instead of doom, thanks in no small part to the GI Bill and other governmental fiscal intervention. We can manage this one as well. For that to happen, the first step is to recognize the problem for what it is. A solution may well require actions similar in scope to the GI Bill and require a national debate.

While there is plenty of blame to go around for mistakes, the macro forces triggered by the labor shock is like a tidal wave that needed to wash ashore no matter what. History might have taken an entirely different path with better risk management controls in place in the US but then again, financial innovation might just have found a different way of getting highly leveraged deals done off-shore or through creative accounting.29 The root cause of the excess liquidity in the global financial system must be addressed, otherwise we are just squeezing the proverbial balloon only to see it bulge out somewhere else. However, this does not negate the need for the development of improved risk management in the broadest sense in order to ensure financial stability and prosperity going forward.

China and India will continue to need to bring tens of millions of rural laborers into the productive workforce in the coming decades and the world economy must find a sustainable way of dealing with this influx. Clearly China’s export led growth strategy of the past cannot continue indefinitely and domestic consumption must be allowed to grow as a share of GDP. At the same time, Western economies must adjust to a new equilibrium in which commodities are scarcer and households will face stiffer competition for jobs.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"On the G20 Agenda"

Tim Duy:

On the G20 Agenda, by Tim Duy: Simon Johnson at the Baseline Scenario has a nice piece bemoaning the US pursuit of a rebalancing agenda at the upcoming G20 meeting. I largely agree with Johnson's tone. Something that sounds nice, but that to which no parties, particularly China and the US, can make a credible commitment. It is, however, keeping some poor staffer at the US Treasury busy 24-7. Johnson's third point, however, misses some important points:
Where is the evidence that this kind of “imbalance” had even a tangential effect on the build up of vulnerabilities that led to the global financial crisis of 2008-09? I understand the theoretical argument that current account imbalances could play a role in a US-based/dollar crisis, but remember: interest rates were low 2002-2006 because of Alan Greenspan (who controlled short-term dollar interest rates); the international capital flows that sought out crazy investments came from Western Europe, which was not a significant net exporter of capital (i.e., a balanced current account is consistent with destabilizing gross flows of capital); and the crisis, when it came, was associated with appreciation – not depreciation – of the dollar.
I believe Johnson underestimates just how close we came to a destabilizing collapse of the Dollar in 2008. That avoidance of that near collapse was well documented by Brad Setser in his legendary "quiet bailout" series:
...The US had a large external deficit going into the subprime crisis. That means it has a constant need for external financing. Foreigners need to more than just hold their existing claims on the US, they need to add to them. The US responded to the subprime crisis with policies — a fiscal stimulus, monetary easing — designed to support domestic US demand, not to assure ongoing demand for US financial assets. And for a complex set of reasons – ongoing growth in China, energy-intensive growth in the Gulf, limited expansion of supply and perhaps monetary easing in the US — the price of oil has shot up even as the US has slowed. Higher oil prices are likely to push the US trade deficit and the US need for financing up — not down – at least in nominal terms.
So far that hasn’t been a serious problem. Central bank reserve growth has been very strong, most because a couple of big countries are adding to their reserves at an incredible rate. The New York Fed data tells us that a lot of that growth has been channeled into safe US assets. But there are also growing signs that rapid reserve growth is causing some countries — including some big countries — trouble.
Later analysis can be found here. Had it not been for the supporting role that China and other central banks played in financing the US current account deficit, we would have seen a full blown currency crisis, well before the financial crisis of September 2008.
As an aside, the intervention to support the Dollar was also the key event that allowed the US recession to evolve in the pattern envisions by domestic-focused economists, as opposed to those seeped in the traditions of international finance. Brad Delong has a fantastic piece on this issue, including the key assumption failed the internationalists:
Before dinner one evening I was lectured by a prominent Washington-area international finance economist about all the reasons that the 1986-1990 U.S. experience was likely to be a bad guide to the future…
...The Japanese government was willing to buy very large amounts of dollar-denominated assets in the late 1980s to keep the decline in the value of the dollar "orderly." In so doing, it inflated its domestic credit base and touched off its own property bubble. No foreign government is going to risk this again just because the U.S. would rather that the decline in the dollar was slow and orderly.
I have no doubt that the willingness of central banks to flood the global economy with month in an effort to hold currency pegs contributed greatly to the great commodity price bubble that ultimately sent US real consumption into a tail spin well before the events in the fall of 2008.
As to the G20 proposal itself - easier said than done. Back on the real side of the economy, I believe the US economy is very structurally misaligned, to a disturbing degree. We simply do not make many of the products we want to buy, and have the capacity to make many products - like expensive housing - that no one wants to buy. Moreover, these structural misalignments have been building for at least 15 years, at least partly the consequence of the US strong Dollar policy that gave license for wholesale currency manipulation to support mercantilistic policy objectives. Reversing 15 years of policy in which deep structural shifts occurred will not happen overnight.
Nor do I think the Chinese are interested in making that transition happen. Thomas Freidman has a point here:
China now understands that. It no longer believes it can pollute its way to prosperity because it would choke to death. That is the most important shift in the world in the last 18 months. China has decided that clean-tech is going to be the next great global industry and is now creating a massive domestic market for solar and wind, which will give it a great export platform….So, if you like importing oil from Saudi Arabia, you’re going to love importing solar panels from China.
This restructuring, not so much the financial restructuring, is what I suspect the Administration really wants to address.
Good luck with that.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Global Rebalancing

Free Exchange says "many of the things you know about China are wrong":

Many things that you know about China are wrong, Free Exchange: If you think you understand the dynamics underlying global imbalances and the role China plays in generating them, have a good look at this piece, from this week's print edition. It challenges many of the ideas that pass for conventional wisdom on the subject. For instance, it is a commonplace that China depresses domestic demand to boost its exports. But in fact:

China’s current-account surplus will fall to under 6% of GDP this year and 4% in 2010, down from a peak of 11% in 2007. Exports amounted to 35% of GDP in 2007; this year, reckons Mr Cavey, that ratio will drop to 24.5%. ...

In fact, the popular perception that China has always relied on export-led growth is rather misleading. Its current-account surplus did soar from 2005 onwards but until then was rather modest. And over the past ten years net exports accounted, on average, for only one-tenth of its growth.

The problem is that too little of domestic demand growth goes to consumption. Rather, investment accounts for a rising proportion of Chinese output. But this isn't because consumption is growing slowly, as is widely believed:

It is often argued that China runs a current-account surplus because its consumer spending has been sluggish. On the contrary, China has the world’s fastest-growing consumer market, increasing by 8% a year in real terms in the past decade. ... Even so, China’s consumer spending has grown more slowly than the overall economy. As a result consumption as a share of GDP has fallen and is extremely low by international standards: only 35%, compared with 50-60% in most other Asian economies and 70% in America.

Investment has just grown  ... too fast for consumption to keep pace. It's also assumed that China has pursued export-led growth because it must create jobs for its many people. And yet:

The more important reason why consumption has fallen is that the share of national income going to households (as wages and investment income) has fallen, while the share of profits has risen. Workers’ share of the cake has dwindled because China’s rapid growth has generated surprisingly few jobs. Growth has been capital-intensive, focusing on heavy industries such as steel rather than more labour-intensive services. Profits (the return to capital) have outpaced wage income.

Capital-intensive production has been encouraged... The government has also favoured manufacturing over services...

It's ironic; by favouring capital-intensive manufacturing exportables, the government has missed out on opportunities to grow more labour-intensive retail and service sectors which could employ more workers. It often seems as though economists believe that simply by allowing its currency to appreciate, China can begin to break down many of the world's structural imbalances. Certainly, that would help. But it also appears ... China will have to pursue serious internal reforms—strengthening its financial sector, improving its social safety net, and removing burdensome regulations designed to generate massive investment in manufacturing industries. In other words, rebalancing isn't as easy as it looks.

[Traveling all day today, so I probably won't be able to do much. Update: So nice to get to the airport and find out your flight is canceled. It's going to be a long day. Update: Now I'll be happy to leave the airport in Ithaca. First flight canceled, second delayed. All night in the Philadelphia airport, if I can get there. So much fun.]

Friday, July 24, 2009

"All Stimulus Roads Lead to China"

Should emerging countries, China in particular, intentionally spend more on imports from the U.S.?:

All stimulus roads lead to China, by Barry Eichengreen, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Now that the “green shoots” of recovery have withered, the debate over fiscal stimulus is back with a vengeance. ... It is possible to argue the economics both ways, but the politics all point in one direction. The US Congress lacks the stomach for another stimulus package. ... A second stimulus simply is not in the cards.

If there is going to be more aggregate demand, it can come from only one place. That place is not Europe or Japan, where debts are even higher than in the US – and the demographic preconditions for servicing them less favorable. Rather, it is emerging markets like China.

The problem is that China has already done a lot to stimulate domestic demand... As a result, its stock market is frothy, and it is experiencing an alarming property boom. ... Understandably, Chinese officials worry about bubble trouble.

The obvious way to square this circle is to spend more on imports. China can purchase more industrial machinery, transport equipment, and steelmaking material, which are among its leading imports from the US. Directing spending toward imports of capital equipment would avoid overheating China’s own markets, boost the economy’s productive capacity (and thus its ability to grow in the future), and support demand for US, European, and Japanese products just when such support is needed most.

This strategy is not without risks. Allowing the renminbi to appreciate as a way of encouraging imports may also discourage exports, the traditional motor of Chinese growth. And lowering administrative barriers to imports might redirect more spending toward foreign goods than the authorities intend. But these are risks worth taking if China is serious about assuming a global leadership role.

The question is what China will get in return. And the answer brings us back, full circle, to ... US fiscal policy. China is worried that its more than $1tn investment in US Treasury securities will not hold its value. It wants reassurance that the US will stand behind its debts. It therefore wants to see a credible program for balancing the US budget once the recession ends.

And, tough talk notwithstanding, the Obama administration has yet to offer a credible roadmap for fiscal consolidation. ... We live in a multipolar world where neither the US nor China is large enough to exercise global economic leadership on its own. ... Only by working together can the two countries lead the world economy out of its current doldrums.

I don't think we should count on this happening.

Friday, June 26, 2009

"China Crosses the Rubicon"

According to this analysis, China's economic interests are having a big impact on its strategic plans. It also makes it sound as thought Russia and China could be be headed for conflict over border regions. I'm not sure if this will generate much discussion or not, but I'm curious what you think about this:

China Crosses the Rubicon, by Wen Liao, Commentary, Project Syndicate: For two decades, Chinese diplomacy has been guided by the concept of the country's "peaceful rise." Today, however, China needs a new strategic doctrine, because the most remarkable aspect of Sri Lanka's recent victory over the Tamil Tigers is ... the fact that China provided ... both the military supplies and diplomatic cover ... needed to prosecute the war. ...

So, not only has China become central to every aspect of the global financial and economic system, it has now demonstrated its strategic effectiveness in a region traditionally outside its orbit. ... What will this change mean in practice in the world's hot spots like North Korea, Pakistan, and Central Asia?

Continue reading ""China Crosses the Rubicon"" »

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Lasting Recovery?

Olivier Blanchard argues that global imbalances must be resolved in order to put the world economy on a sustainable path to recovery:

What is needed for a lasting recovery, by Olivier Blanchard, Commentary, Financial Times: In 2007, worried about the growing size of current account imbalances, the IMF organised multilateral consultations to see what should be done about it. There was wide agreement that the solution was conceptually straightforward. To caricature: get US consumers to spend less. Get Chinese consumers to spend more. This would be good for the US, good for China, and good for the world. ...

It was an impressive piece of global macroeconomic planning. But, at least until the crisis, not much happened. ... And, since the beginning of the crisis, dealing with global imbalances has gone down the priority list. ... As the crisis evolves, however,... the issue of global imbalances is likely to return to the fore. Again, a central role will have to be played by the US and by China.

Continue reading "A Lasting Recovery?" »

Monday, May 25, 2009

Global Imbalances and Future Crises

I've been trying to figure out how much danger there is of a sudden unwinding of global imbalances that could extend and potentially deepen the recession. I've been worried there is a chance this could happen, but Barry Eichengreen explains that there are "two hopes for avoiding this disastrous outcome":

Fix global imbalances to avert future crises, by Barry Eichengreen, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Future history books, depending on where they are written, will take one of two approaches to assigning blame for the world’s current financial and economic crisis.

One approach will blame lax regulation, accommodating monetary policy, and inadequate savings in the US. The other, already being pushed by former and current US officials like Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, will blame the immense pool of liquidity generated by high-savings countries in East Asia and the Middle East. All that liquidity, they will argue, had to go somewhere. Its logical destination was the country with the deepest financial markets, the US, where it raised asset prices to unsustainable heights.

Note the one thing on which members of both camps agree: the global savings imbalance – low savings in the US and high savings in Chinaand other emerging markets – played a key role in the crisis... Preventing future crises similar to this one therefore requires resolving the problem of global imbalances. ...

Whether there is a permanent reduction in global imbalances will depend mainly on decisions taken outside the US, specifically in countries like China. One’s forecast of those decisions hinges, in turn, on why these other countries came to run such large surpluses in the first place.

One view is that their surpluses were a corollary of the policies favouring export-led growth that worked so well for so long. China’s leaders are understandably reluctant to abandon a tried-and-true model. They can’t restructure their economy instantaneously. ... They need time to build a social safety net capable of encouraging Chinese households to reduce their precautionary saving. If this view is correct, we can expect to see global imbalances re-emerge once the recession is over and to unwind only slowly thereafter.

The other view is that China contributed to global imbalances not through its merchandise exports, but through its capital exports. What China lacked was not demand for consumption goods, but a supply of high-quality financial assets. It found these in the US, mainly in the form  of Treasury and other government-backed securities, in turn pushing other investors into more speculative investments.

Recent events have not enhanced the stature of the US as a supplier of high-quality assets. And China, for its part, will continue to develop its financial markets and its capacity to generate high-quality financial assets internally. But doing so will take time. Meanwhile, the US still has the most liquid financial markets in the world. This interpretation again implies the re-emergence of global imbalances once the recession ends, and their very gradual unwinding thereafter.

One development that could change this forecast is if China comes to view investing in US financial assets as a money-losing proposition. US budget deficits as far as the eye can see might excite fear of losses on US Treasury bonds. A de facto policy of inflating away the debt might stoke such fears further. At that point, China would pull the plug, the dollar would crash, and the Fed would be forced to raise interest rates, plunging the US back into recession.

There are two hopes for avoiding this disastrous outcome. One is relying on Chinese goodwill to stabilise the US and world economies. The other is for the Obama administration and the Fed to provide details about how they will eliminate the budget deficit and avoid inflation once the recession ends. The second option is clearly preferable. After all, it is always better to control one’s own fate.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Paul Krugman: Empire of Carbon

Paul Krugman says that if we want to save the planet from global warming, China's participation will be required:

Empire of Carbon, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: I have seen the future, and it won’t work.

These should be hopeful times for environmentalists. Junk science no longer rules in Washington. President Obama has spoken forcefully about the need to take action on climate change; the people I talk to are increasingly optimistic that Congress will soon establish a cap-and-trade system... And once America acts, we can expect much of the world to follow our lead.

But that still leaves the problem of China, where I have been for most of the last week. Like every visitor to China, I was awed by the scale of the country’s development. Even the annoying aspects — much of my time was spent viewing the Great Wall of Traffic — are byproducts of the nation’s economic success.

But China cannot continue along its current path because the planet can’t handle the strain.

The scientific consensus on ... global warming has become much more pessimistic over the last few years. ... Why? Because the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are rising is matching or exceeding the worst-case scenarios. And the growth of emissions from China ... is one main reason for this new pessimism.

China’s emissions, which come largely from its coal-burning electricity plants, doubled between 1996 and 2006. ... And the trend seems set to continue: In January, China announced that it plans to continue its reliance on coal... That’s a decision that, all by itself, will swamp any emission reductions elsewhere.

So what is to be done about the China problem?

Nothing, say the Chinese. Each time I raised the issue..., I was met with outraged declarations that it was unfair to expect China to limit its use of fossil fuels. After all, they declared, the West faced no similar constraints during its development; while China may be the world’s largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, its per-capita emissions are still far below American levels; and anyway, the great bulk of the global warming that has already happened is due not to China but to the past carbon emissions of today’s wealthy nations.

And they’re right. It is unfair to expect China to live within constraints that we didn’t have to face when our own economy was on its way up. But that unfairness doesn’t change ... that letting China match the West’s past profligacy would doom the Earth as we know it.

Historical injustice aside, the ... climate-change consequences of Chinese production have to be taken into account somewhere. And anyway, the problem with China is not so much what it produces as how it produces it. ...

The good news is that the very inefficiency of China’s energy use offers huge scope for improvement. Given the right policies, China could continue to grow rapidly without increasing its carbon emissions. But first it has to realize that policy changes are necessary.

There are hints ... that the country’s policy makers are starting to realize that their current position is unsustainable. But I suspect that they don’t realize how quickly the whole game is about to change.

As the United States and other advanced countries finally move to confront climate change, they will also be morally empowered to confront those nations that refuse to act. Sooner than most people think, countries that refuse to limit their greenhouse gas emissions will face sanctions, probably in the form of taxes on their exports. They will complain bitterly that this is protectionism, but so what? Globalization doesn’t do much good if the globe itself becomes unlivable.

It’s time to save the planet. And like it or not, China will have to do its part.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Asia and the "Bond Bubble"

Yu Qiao says Asian countries are worried about their large investment in dollar denominated US assets and would like one of those one-sided, heads we win, tails the taxpayers loses deals that everyone else seems to be getting:

Asia is the victim if the bond bubble bursts, by Yu Qiao, Commentary, Financial Times: ...Most of Mr Obama’s stimulus spending is devoted to social programmes rather than growth promotion, which may exacerbate America’s over-consumption problem and delay sustainable recovery. On top of this, the unprecedented fiscal stimulus, with the Federal Reserve’s move to inject money into credit markets, contains self-destructive seeds. ... In the long term, America may seek to resolve its economic mess by devaluing the dollar at best and a default at worst. ... It is the foreign holders of US obligations denominated in dollars that would end up paying.

Analysts have warned of the dangers of the US Treasury bond bubble that developed in late 2008. ... If this bubble burst, east Asians would be victims..., the consequences would devastate Asians’ hard-earned wealth and terminate economic globalisation.

No other international monetary system offers a viable alternative. However, we can make the main reserve currency power more accountable by creating an instrument to help manage the global crisis.

The basic idea is to turn Asian savings, China’s in particular, into real business investments rather than let them be used to support US over-consumption... [E]quity claims on sound corporations and infrastructure projects are at less risk from a currency default. But Asians do not want to bear the risk of this investment because of market turbulence and a lack of knowledge of cultural, legal and regulatory issues in US businesses. However if a guarantee scheme were created, Asian savers could be willing to invest directly in capital-hungry US industries.

First, Asian countries could negotiate with the US government to create a crisis relief facility. The CRF would be used alongside US federal efforts to stabilise the banking system and to invest in capital-intensive infrastructure projects such as a high-speed railway from Boston to Washington DC.

Second, Asians could pool a proportion of their holdings of Treasury bonds under the CRF umbrella to convert sovereign debt into equity investment. Any CRF funds, earmarked for industrial commitment, would still be owned and managed by their respective countries. In return, Asians would hold minor equity shares that would, like preferred stock, be convertible .

Third, the US government would act as the guarantor, providing a sovereign guarantee scheme to assure the investment principal of the CRF against possible default of targeted companies or projects. Fourth, the Fed would set up a special account with the US government to supply liquidity that the CRF requires to swap sovereign debt into industrial investment in the US.

The CRF would lessen Asians’ concern about implicit default of sovereign debts caused by a collapsing dollar. It would cost little and help the US by channelling funds to business investment. Conventional Keynesian policies – fiscal and monetary expansion on a national basis – cannot solve the problem but will make it worse.

If China and other Asian countries were to fix their under-consumption problem, that would help too (though not right now, if the cheap foreign loans dry up that will make recovery harder).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"China Toys With Biting Hand Feeding Its Surplus"

John Berry:

China Toys With Biting Hand Feeding Its Surplus, by John M. Berry, Bloomberg: If Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is so worried about the safety of China’s investment in U.S. Treasury securities, he can order the money be moved elsewhere.

Of course, that likely would drive down the value of the dollar, push up U.S. interest rates and cause huge losses in China’s $700 billion portfolio of Treasuries.

The reality is that Wen and China are stuck. They have no viable alternative so long as China continues to accumulate large amounts of foreign currencies as a result of its big trade surplus. ... [C]ontinuation of a big trade surplus is ... critical to China -- something Wen conveniently forgets. ...

There will still be a large deficit to be financed, and China and the U.S. will still be intertwined both economically and financially. Wen must know that.

What he doesn’t seem to accept is that anything he and other senior Chinese officials do to raise questions about U.S. creditworthiness or the value of the dollar could come back to haunt them.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Did China Help to Create the Financial Crisis?

Was bad advice to developing countries partly responsible for the financial crisis? According to this, the answer is yes:

How China helped create the macroeconomic backdrop for financial crisis, by Moritz Schularick, Economist's Forum: Over the past decade, China and other emerging markets accumulated foreign currency reserves to insure against the economic and political vagaries of financial globalisation. They were wise to do so. Countries with larger reserves are weathering the storm relatively better than those who have bought less insurance.

Although purchasing insurance policy might have been sensible from the perspective of each country, collectively these currency interventions prepared the ground for the global crisis. Emerging markets, most notably China, helped to create the macroeconomic backdrop for the current financial crisis by subsidising interest rates and consumption in the US. ...

[After] the Asian crisis... Emerging markets heeded Martin Feldstein’s advice and took out an insurance policy against the vagaries of financial globalisation. By running current account surpluses, intervening in foreign exchange markets and building up currency reserves, Asian and other emerging economies were sustaining export led growth and buying insurance against future financial instability.

These policies turned developing markets into net capital exporters to the developed world, mainly to the US. ... Yet the accumulation of large war chests of foreign reserves through currency intervention carried negative externalities.

The arrangement opened a Pandora’s Box of financial distortions that eventually came to haunt the global economy. The glut of savings from emerging markets has been a key factor in the decline in US and global real-long term interest rates, despite the parallel decline in US savings.

Lower interest rates in turn have enabled American households to increase consumption levels and worsened the imbalance between savings and investment. And because foreign savings were predominantly channeled through government (or central bank) hands into safe assets such as treasuries, private investors turned elsewhere to look for higher yields. This ... unleashed the ingenuity of financial engineers who developed new financial products for the low interest rate world, such as securitised debt instruments.

This is not to say that reserve accumulation was the only cause for the current crisis. Yet the core issue remained the Chinese willingness to fund America’s consumption and borrowing habit. Without this support, interest rates in the US would almost certainly have been substantially higher, acting as a circuit breaker for the developing debt-consumption bubble.

Beijing and others cannot be blamed for reckless lending into the housing bubble or leverage in western financial institutions, but it is clear that a vast amount of capital was flowing from a developing country ... to one of the richest economies in the world. ...

From the perspective of emerging markets, the academic debate as to whether reserve levels have grown excessive has been answered almost overnight in the current crisis.  It is clear to policy makers from Buenos Aires to Budapest and Beijing that one can’t have too many reserves in a world of volatile capital flows. ... Have we therefore come to a crossroads for financial globalisation...? After the dust has settled, members of the economics profession will have to think hard about what the right policy advice ... should be. ...

The liquidity coming into the US from Asia and other sources such as the oil producing countries was a factor in the crisis, as were low interest rates under Greenspan, but the availability of large amounts of liquidity on easy terms in and of itself is not enough for problems to develop. How the liquidity is used is the important factor, and if the proper regulatory safeguards are absent, the liquidity may not be used very wisely (as we now know all too well).

With the proper regulatory apparatus in place, or with financial instruments that truly disperse and reduce risk as promised, the reserve balance insurance polices pursued by developing countries do not have to lead to a financial crisis. Distortions are one thing, a crisis is something else and the mere existence of distortions does not lead, by necessity, to a meltdown of the financial system. I am not arguing that no distortions existed, but the crisis was not a necessary consequence of those distortions. The article notes that "Beijing and others cannot be blamed for reckless lending into the housing bubble or leverage in western financial institutions," and I agree. With the proper regulatory framework in place, the crisis need not have happened, and I can't see how the absence of effective regulatory safeguards is the fault of the polices pursued by countries anxious to protect themselves from a repeat of the Asian crisis.

Friday, February 06, 2009

"Is China Immune to Crisis?"

Ken Rogoff is worried about "the sustainability of China's growth paradigm":

Is China Immune to Crisis?, by Kenneth Rogoff, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Addressing the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao explained his government's plans to counter the global economic meltdown with public spending and loans.

He all but guaranteed that China's annual growth would remain above 8 percent in 2009. ... But does the Chinese government really have the tools needed to keep its economy so resilient? Perhaps, but it is far from obvious. ...

With roughly $2 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves, the Chinese do have deep pockets... Many leading Chinese researchers are convinced that that the government will do whatever it takes to keep growth above 8 percent. But there is a catch. ...

Simply put, it is far from clear that marginal infrastructure projects are worth building, given that China is already investing more than 45 percent of its income, much of it in infrastructure. ... In fact, China's success so far has come from maintaining a balance between government and private sector expansion. Sharply raising the government's already outsized profile in the economy will upset this delicate balance leading to slower growth in the future.

It would be preferable for China to find a way to substitute Chinese for U.S. private consumption demand, but the system seems unable to move quickly in this direction.

If government investment has to be the main vehicle, then it would be far better to build desperately needed schools and hospitals than "'bridges to nowhere," as Japan famously did when it went down a similar path in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, China's local officials need to excel in the country's "growth tournament" to get promoted. Schools and hospitals simply do not generate the kind of fast tax revenue and GDP growth needed to outperform political rivals.

Even prior to the onset of the global recession, there were strong reasons to doubt the sustainability of China's growth paradigm. The environmental degradation is obvious even to casual observers.

And economists have started to calculate that if China were to continue its prodigious growth rate, it would soon occupy far too large a share of the global economy to maintain its recent export trajectory. ...

One way or the other, the financial crisis is likely to slow medium-term Chinese growth significantly. But will its leaders succeed in stabilizing the situation in the near term?

I hope so, but I would be more convinced by a plan tilted more toward domestic private consumption, health, and education than to one based on the same growth strategy of the past 30 years.

Monday, December 22, 2008

What Decoupling?

A proposal to rebalance consumption and investment in China:

The China Growth Fantasy, by Yasheng Huang, Commentary, WSJ: Remember the hype about "decoupling"? Not so long ago, Western analysts -- in particular investment-bank economists -- were peddling the idea that China had become ... able not only to drive its own growth independent of the United States but also to power the global economy forward.

To the extent that these Wall Street economists are still employed, few would make that argument now. The economic numbers emerging out of China are sobering. ... Clearly China is not bucking global trends.

So how did all the decoupling theorists get it so wrong? ...

Continue reading "What Decoupling?" »

Friday, September 12, 2008

"The Economics of Kapital and the Capital of Economics"

Michael Perelman is giving a talk to give in China in a few months, and is hoping to get (helpful and constructive) feedback on this initial draft:

The Economics of Kapital and the Capital of Economics

Introduction I want to talk about two capitals ‑‑ capital as it appears in economic theory and Das Kapital of Karl Marx. A careful consideration of these two capitals serves as a warning of what might be in store for any country that allows itself to follow the logic of markets.

Each of these two capitals presents a different sort of difficulty. Economics, the basic theory of capitalism, paradoxically never bothered to develop a serious theory of capital. In contrast, Marx's idea of capital as a social relation is so rich that it defies being compressed into a simple theory.

For this reason, many parts of Marx have rarely been integrated into their modern analysis of his work; these parts stand as incredibly brilliant observations, each of which are like a kaleidoscope. Turn them a bit and they will generate many new observations, each of which could merit a book of its own.

The three observations selected here represent both a chronological sequence and a progression in the sophistication of the challenges that they present.

Continue reading ""The Economics of Kapital and the Capital of Economics"" »

Friday, September 05, 2008

"A Chinese Conspiracy Theory"

Andrew Leonard at Salon sums up recent commentary on Chinese investments in U.S. bonds that is going sour, and provides some of his own:

A Chinese conspiracy theory, Andrew Leonard: Hardly a day goes by without Dean Baker finding something to get angry about in the pages of the New York Times or Washington Post, but on Friday morning the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research delivered a double-dose of dyspeptic sputtering.

"Is China's Central Bank Run By Morons?" asks Baker, responding to a Times piece detailing the woes of the People's Bank of China, which has found itself stuck with a gargantuan pile of U.S. bonds that are turning out to be a pretty bad investment.

Baker can't understand how anyone could have been stupid enough, back in 2001 or 2002, not to foresee that the then mighty dollar would inevitably decline, given the size of the U.S. trade deficit. If the Times' Keith Bradsher was reporting accurately, argues Baker, when he quoted an expert in Chinese financial affairs as saying that many bank officials "resented the institution's losses," then the Times misjudged the importance of the story.

If the people who run China's central bank are really this ignorant, that should have been the headline of the article, which should have been on the front page.

I think Baker is overstating the case to declare that "Apart from buying bonds from Zimbabwe, it's hard to imagine how [the Chinese] could have made a worse investment." After all, if the Chinese hadn't been bailing out the U.S. financial system, where would the U.S. have gotten the money to pay for all the Chinese-made goods whose export has fueled China's economic rise?

To me, the most interesting tidbit in Bradsher's story was a reference to a conspiracy theory currently all the rage in China.

From the Times:

[The expert] said the officials blamed the United States and believed the controversial assertions set forth in the book "Currency War," a Chinese best seller published a year ago. The book suggests that the United States deliberately lured China into buying its securities knowing that they would later plunge in value.

"A lot of policy makers in China, at least midlevel policy makers, believe this," Mr. Shih said.

That nugget reminded me of a line from a long, if not particularly interesting or insightful essay about Chinese-U.S. relations by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in the current Foreign Affairs.

Despite the two countries' long history of interaction, they frequently display a stunning ability to misunderstand each other.

Seriously; the officials at the People's Bank of China probably aren't morons, but they do betray a breathtaking misunderstanding of the quality of recent government in the United States if they think we could intentionally pull off that kind of massive grifter's scam on China. We're not worthy.

Another line from Paulson's essay is apropos here:

Exploiting popular anxieties about globalization, economic nationalists in China are questioning the benefits of China's integration into the international economic system.

That sentence also holds true if one substitutes the words "United States" for "China." Both nations boast sizable factions who believe the other side is taking advantage of them. I don't normally find myself in Paulson's camp, but I've got to agree with him on this one -- the U.S. and China are not playing a zero-sum game. China's bankrolling of U.S. debt has been critical to the stability of the U.S. economy and the U.S. appetite for Chinese goods has translated into increased prosperity for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Brad Setser comments here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

China, Iraq, Oil, and Geopolitical Stability

I think this is right, we should encourage this:

A new dynamic for the Middle East, econbrowser: Maybe it's time to try something new. And maybe it's already starting.

Last week the New York Times reported:

In the first major oil deal Iraq has made with a foreign country since 2003, the Iraqi government and the China National Petroleum Corporation have signed a contract in Beijing that could be worth up to $3 billion, Iraqi officials said Thursday.

Under the new contract, which must still be approved by Iraq's cabinet, the Chinese company will provide technical advisers, oil workers and equipment to help develop the Ahdab oil field southeast of Baghdad, according to Assim Jihad, a spokesman for Iraq's Oil Ministry. If the deal is approved, work could begin on the oil field within a few months, Mr. Jihad said.

And today the Guardian confirms that the deal was approved by Iraq's cabinet.

There are some Americans who regard expanding Chinese global influence with fear and suspicion. But I maintain that stability and prosperity for Iraq and the broader Middle East should be the primary U.S. objective at the moment. Although China of course has its own reasons to be interested in the region, those interests are undermined by terrorism and regional instability just as much as ours. And precisely because China is a distinct power with separate interests from the U.S., its status as a more neutral third party leaves it in a position to assist in restoring stability to Iraq and the region in ways that the U.S. cannot. The perception that the purpose of toppling Saddam Hussein was to benefit U.S. oil companies greatly undermines our capacity to bring peace to the region. One way the U.S. can signal that our goal is instead regional stability is by embracing a larger role for China in Iraq and the Middle East.

Some may ask, What good does it do Americans if Iraqi oil gets shipped to China? The answer is, it is a global market for oil... [P]rice depends on the total quantity produced globally and the total quantity consumed globally. More global production means a lower price, and which country consumes which oil is of little practical significance... But it matters a great deal for the price that American consumers pay for oil whether the Iraqi oil is produced or is not produced.

Others may worry that higher oil production today just leaves the world with less of this depletable resource for the future. But to this I would counter that the transition to a world when global oil production no longer increases each year will raise some tremendous geopolitical stresses. The more stability and cooperation we can have as we enter that phase, the better off we will be.

You've heard it said, "What's good for General Motors is good for the U.S." But I say, "what's good for Iraq and China is good for the U.S."

Friday, August 29, 2008

"The Growth Future – India and China"

Arvind Subramanian says when it comes to sustaining economic growth, China is likely to do better than India:

The growth future – India and China, by Arvind Subramanian, Vox EU: Can China and India sustain their current growth rates? A traditional answer to this question is conditional: yes, provided they continue to implement policy reforms. But historical experience allows a less guarded answer. There are few examples of countries that have grown as strongly and for such long periods as India and China have – 6% and 10%, respectively, for nearly three decades – and then suffered a sharp slowdown or collapse. If history is a reliable guide, then barring major upheavals, economic growth looks likely to continue in both countries until some threshold level of prosperity is attained.

But why does growth beget more growth? One mechanism is simply that growth signals the fact of profitable economic opportunities, which encourages investors to rush in, first in response to these opportunities but then in response to each other – this is growth as a confidence trick – creating a virtuous circle. If countries are relatively poor, if their markets are large, and if their policy framework is basically sensible – all of which are true of China and India – the chances of the growth-begetting-growth dynamic taking hold are high.

But in addition to the signalling effect, growth may itself cause changes which have in turn a growth-reinforcing effect – a kind of positive feedback loop. A good example is education. For long, development economists bemoaned the poor levels of educational attainment in India, directing their critique at the government’s failure to supply better education. But economic growth changed the education picture dramatically. It increased the returns to, and hence the demand for, education. And if government supply remained weak, consumers simply turned to the private sector to meet their demand for education. Improvements in educational attainment over the last 15 years are attributable in part to more rapid growth.

An important question then is whether India and China can take the positive feedback loop for granted, especially in relation to two key determinants of long-run growth: state capacity or effectiveness and the private sector’s entrepreneurial capacity. In other words, is it inevitable that over time growth will itself improve the quality of private entrepreneurship and public institutions? Consider each in turn.

Continue reading ""The Growth Future – India and China"" »

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Have Production Subsidies Helped Chinese Exporters?

Do production subsidies work?:

Can production subsidies explain China’s export performance?, bySourafel Girma, Yundan Gong, Holger Görg, and Zhihong Yu, Vox EU: China’s exports are booming and – somewhat surprisingly – not just in labour-intensive goods. As Yale trade economist Peter Schott writes in his recent Vox column, China exports an astonishingly wide range of goods – including many in high-tech sectors (Schott 2008).

Although some economists argue that this is an illusion – that China’s sophisticated exports are just assembled from sophisticated imported components (Branstetter and Lardy 2006) – it is difficult to deny that some Chinese firms are making their mark in high-tech industries. According to the WTO 2007 report, China’s export unit value index for manufactured goods rose by 3.6% in 2006, signalling a move away from reliance on the cheap exports.

Pushing its industry up the value-added change is a clear goal of the Chinese government at both the central and local levels. Tax incentives and other policies, like production subsidies, are used to actively upgrade companies’ product structure. But have these policies had any effect? For example, Görg, Henry and Strobl (2008) provide firm-level evidence that Irish production subsidies boosted the exports of already existing exporters but found no evidence that subsidies induced firms to begin exporting.

Our recent study addresses this question for China by examining firm-level data encompassing nearly a half million firms (more than 1.3 million observations) over a six year period from 1999 to 2005 (Girma et al. 2008). Critically, we have rare information on production subsidies received by Chinese firms.[1]

Continue reading "Have Production Subsidies Helped Chinese Exporters?" »

Friday, May 30, 2008

Aid to Poor Countries: "Cruel Joke" Week

Is the opening paragraph serious?:

Bread and Bush-bashing, by Chris Patten, Project Syndicate: I feel a little sorry for President Bush. Whatever his other many failings, he has a pretty good record on aid to poor countries, particularly in healthcare. True to form, he recently announced a big increase in US food aid -- good for the hungry poor and good for American farmers. ...

What made me feel a little sorry for Bush was the reaction to his announcement. Bush referred to the reasons for shortages and price hikes. He did not dwell on the diversion of American corn from food to heavily subsidized bio-fuels. Nor did climate change feature prominently in his argument, although many experts suggest that this may be the cause of the droughts and floods that have ruined wheat harvests in Australia and vegetable oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Bush pointed his finger primarily elsewhere. Food prices had responded to growing demand. In Asia, economic growth had stimulated food consumption. The Chinese and Indians were eating more and eating better. ...

What Bush said is of course true. ...

But many Indians are still wretchedly poor. Too many. They have a miserable diet -- not least when compared with Bush’s Texan neighbors. Grain consumption per head in India has remained static, and is less than one-fifth the figure for the US, where it has been rising. I do not imagine you will find too many vegetarians in Crawford, Texas, and the meat consumed by the average American is way ahead of the figure for any other country. Think of all those T-bone steaks.

Bush’s partial explanation of the world food crisis, accurate as far as it went, brought the anger of India’s media and of many politicians... According to India’s Defense Minister, A.K. Anthony, presumably an expert on butter as well as guns, Bush’s statement was “a cruel joke.”...

Later in the “cruel joke” week, Bush’s White House compounded the sin. According to Bush’s press spokesman, the growth in world demand for oil -- in Asia, for example -- was one of the causes of the high price of filling the tanks of gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles ... at America’s pumps.

Meanwhile, the US government papered over the fact that Americans, who make up less than 4 percent of the world’s population, own and drive 250 million of the world’s 520 million cars. More outrage around the world at American double standards.

Now, all this is more than the knock-about of international politics. One day soon, Bush and Cheney will be out of office. But we will still be left with the most difficult global issue we have ever faced: as more of us prosper, how do we deal fairly with some of the economic and environmental consequences?

What do we do about the bottom billion in the world who remain in grinding poverty while the rest of us live better and longer lives? How do we deal with equity on a global scale when we cannot even deal with it country by country?

This conundrum will lie at the heart of the diplomacy next year to find a successor to the Kyoto agreement. Can we prevent a calamitous increase in global warming in a way that is fair,... and that does not thwart legitimate hopes for a better life everywhere? We have never faced a more difficult political task.

Meanwhile, there is a food crisis to solve. We have already seen many examples of how not to deal with it. Stopping food exports is stupid. If we restrict market forces, there will be less food and higher prices. We should also avoid the cheap political trick of holding down what we pay to poor farmers in order to benefit poor city dwellers.

Why do governments do this? The answer is obvious: city dwellers riot; in the countryside, people just starve. The best way to deal with the problem is to subsidize food for the poor; we should not cut the price we pay farmers for growing it. ...

Here's the reason I asked. This is Africa, not India, but I don't suppose the story is any different:

Food Relief For Africa 'Insufficient,' GAO Says, by Anthony Faiola, Washington Post: Efforts by the United States and multilateral agencies including the World Bank to reduce hunger in sub-Saharan Africa have been "insufficient," with foreign aid to the region failing to flow into agricultural development projects vital to the ability of poor countries to feed themselves, according to a report to be released this morning by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. ...

The report, a draft copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, additionally describes U.S. aid efforts in sub-Saharan Africa as fragmented and misdirected. It says, for instance, that a Bush administration initiative to "end hunger in Africa" launched in 2002 effectively amounted to a repackaging of existing programs and came with no new funding. ...

The report comes on the heels of another released by the GAO last year sharply criticizing U.S. food aid programs. That report called them "inherently inefficient" because they rely on the sale of American-grown food that is costly to transport overseas, as opposed to food purchased closer to the troubled regions themselves. ...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Do You Care?

How much should the well-being of people in other countries matter for domestic policy?:

China’s Class Divide, by Daniel A. Bell, Commentary, NY Times: ...Tsinghua is one of China’s most prestigious universities and it is known for its politically conservative orientation. President Hu Jintao is an alumnus, and most of my colleagues are Communist Party members, as are many of my students.

Yet the atmosphere is anything but conservative. The most popular lecturers tend to be the ones who openly criticize contemporary China. In private, students are quick to express frustration at Internet censorship and official propaganda. In class, student questions are often critical to the point that I need to introduce some “pro-government” views for balance.

Shortly after the uprisings in Tibet in March, I happened to lecture on Locke’s idea of constitutional democracy. A student asked if the “right to rebel” would justify the use of violence by Tibetans fighting for independence. In the interest of class time, I had to shut off the discussion. The next week we discussed Isaiah Berlin’s concept of freedom... Once again, I was forced into the strange position of cutting off debate before it got out of hand.

After the Sichuan earthquake, ..., I was due to lecture on John Rawls’s theory of justice. ... I tried hard to think of an example that the students could grapple with.

Finally I came up with a good one (or so I thought). According to Rawls, the state should give first consideration to the worst-off members of the community. But which “community” matters? Do the state’s obligations extend outside national boundaries? For example, the cyclone in Burma caused more deaths than the Chinese earthquake. Should China help the victims of the Burmese cyclone, even if it means less aid for the rescue mission in China?

When I finished, the class went unexpectedly silent, to the point that I could feel a certain amount of hostility. Finally a student said that of course the Chinese government should help the Chinese first. But why, I said? Another student said, it’s obvious, the victims are Chinese. “But why, why?” I asked, somewhat impatiently. Give me some reasons.

Some students spoke up. There is no global institution that could distribute aid in accordance with Rawls’s principles of justice. The Chinese people pay taxes to the Chinese state, so the state has special obligations to them. The Chinese state couldn’t do much for the Burmese people even if it wanted to.

I responded that the Burmese government is truly awful, blocking aid to its own people, and that the Chinese government could have some influence on it. ...[T]he bell rang. In the past, the ever-polite students would clap in appreciation before leaving. This time, there was no applause.

When I got home, I realized that I had trodden on sensitive territory. Chinese TV has been filled with scenes of death and devastation, of Chinese soldiers wading through mud and gore to help the victims. Every conversation is prefaced with concern about the victims. I sent an e-mail message to the class apologizing for the “wrong-headed” example...

A student wrote back saying, “It is not a wrong-headed example; we just have clear and strong identification.” That seems to go to the heart of what went wrong. It’s perfectly natural to care about people closer to home, especially in times of disaster. ...

I've wondered about this - how much to care about people inside the US versus people in the rest of the world - when it comes to monetary and fiscal policy. Say, for example, the US is about to go into a recession and it can save itself, but in doing so it will make life much more difficult for developing countries. Should policymakers do what's best for the US even if it impacts other countries negatively, or do monetary and fiscal authorities have an obligation to consider the interests of other people in the world when they are making policy decisions? Shouldn't policymakers always do what's best for the US?

Yes, but policymakers are supposed to represent our interests, and if we care, on average, a lot about how our actions impact other people in the world, then policymakers should reflect that in their policy choices - that's what's best for us. Conversely, if we mostly care about ourselves, and the rest of the world matters little, then policymakers should reflect those preferences too and show little regard for the potential negative impact of domestic economic policy on other people in the world (except to the extent there are negative feedbacks effects).

But I'm less comfortable with that position. What's the argument against it, i.e. what's the argument for internalizing the negative economic externalities that hit other countries because of our policy choices even if we don't care very much about those countries?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Kenneth Rogoff: China May Be The Economy To Lose Sleep Over

What if China's economy goes into a slump, what then? Is there a significant possibility this could happen? Ken Rogoff says there is reason to worry:

China may yet be economy to lose sleep over, by Kenneth Rogoff, Commentary, Financial Times: Given the highly vulnerable state of the US and European economies, what would happen to global growth if the Chinese juggernaut also started sputtering? ...

China’s remarkable resilience to both the 2001 global recession and the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis has convinced almost everyone that another year of double-digit growth is all but inevitable. In fact, the odds of a significant growth recession in China – at least one year of sub-6 per cent growth – during the next couple of years are 50:50. With Chinese inflation spiking, notable backpedalling on market reforms and falling export demand, 2008 could be particularly challenging. ...

Continue reading "Kenneth Rogoff: China May Be The Economy To Lose Sleep Over" »

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Investing in China: Fool’s Gold?"

Thomas Palley sends his latest:

Investing in China: Fool’s Gold?, by Thomas I. Palley: Americans tend to disregard history. Henry Ford declared bluntly, “History is bunk,” while Gore Vidal calls the U.S. “the United States of Amnesia.” Usually, this disregard has few consequences, but sometimes not. That may be so with investing in China, where history suggests profits will be far below expectations, possibly making those investments fool’s gold.

China’s history is completely different from that of the United States and it has left deep imprints on China’s politics. Therein lies the trap for investors and policymakers who ignore history and wishfully think market forces will inevitably make China just like the United States.

Continue reading ""Investing in China: Fool’s Gold?"" »

Alex Tabarrok: "Reason to be Highly Optimistic about the Future"

Don't worry, things are going to turn out great:

Dismal Science Sees Upbeat Future, Alexander Tabarrok, Forbes: Forget the talk of recession. The world is about to enter a new era in which miracle drugs will conquer cancer and other killer diseases and technological and scientific advances will trigger unprecedented economic growth and global prosperity.

Pie in the sky optimism? Perhaps. But there are reasons to be optimistic, and they rest ... within the badly misnamed "dismal science," economics.

To understand why economics triggers such optimism, imagine that there are two deadly diseases. One disease is relatively rare, the other common. ... If you don't want to die, it's much better to have the common disease. ... The cost of developing drugs for rare and common diseases are about the same, but the revenues aren't ... larger markets mean more profits.

As a result, there are more drugs to treat diseases with a lot of patients than to treat rare diseases, and more drugs means greater life expectancy. Patients diagnosed with rare diseases ... are 45% more likely to die before age 55 than are patients diagnosed with more common diseases. So imagine this: If China and India were as wealthy as the U.S., the market for cancer drugs would be eight times larger than it is today. ...

Like pharmaceuticals, new computer chips, software and chemicals also require large research and development (R&D) expenditures. As India, China and other countries become wealthier, companies will increase their worldwide R&D investments. Most importantly, as markets expand, companies and countries will put to work the greatest asset of all for the betterment of mankind: brain power.

Amazingly, there are only about 6 million scientists and engineers in the entire world, nearly a quarter of whom are in the U.S. ... But if the world as a whole were as wealthy as the U.S..., there would be more than five times as many scientists and engineers worldwide.

People used to think that more population was bad for growth. In this view, people are stomachs--they eat, leaving less for everyone else. But once we realize the importance of ideas in the economy, people become brains--they innovate, creating more for everyone else. New ideas mean more growth, and even small changes in economic growth rates produce large economic and social benefits. ...

In the 20th century, two world wars diverted the energy of two generations from production to destruction. ... Communism isolated much of the world, reducing trade in goods and ideas--to everyone's detriment. World poverty meant that the U.S. and a few other countries shouldered the burdens of advancing knowledge nearly alone.

The battles of the 20th century were not fought in vain. Trade, development and the free flow of people and ideas are uniting all of humanity, maximizing the incentives and the means to produce new ideas. This gives us reason to be highly optimistic about the future.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Why Does India Lag Behind China?

Arvind Panagariya of Columbia University with "a discussion of how India could speed its transition to a modern economy":

What India must do to modernise, by Arvind Panagariya, Vox EU: A key advantage claimed for the outward-oriented development strategy is that it allows poor, labour-abundant countries to specialise in labour-intensive products and, thus make efficient use of limited capital stocks. To quote Anne O. Kruger (1985), “An export-oriented strategy permits countries to use the international market to exchange their own, relatively labour-intensive commodities for capital-intensive goods. They are thus able to take advantage of the division of labour and specialisation. This ability contrasts sharply with import-substitution policies under which labour-abundant developing countries produce the entire spectrum of manufacturing goods and experience high and rising capital/labour ratios.”

The experiences of South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and most recently China offer broad support to this claim. Increasing shares of industry in GDP in general and of labour-intensive manufactures in particular accompanied the adoption of outward-oriented strategies in these countries. Exports of unskilled-labour-intensive products such as apparel, footwear, toys and numerous light manufactures expanded rapidly.

Continue reading "Why Does India Lag Behind China?" »

Sunday, January 06, 2008

"The 'Browning' of African Technology"

G. Pascal Zachary says we are falling behind in Africa:

The “Browning” of African technology, by G. Pascal Zachary: A number of newspapers in Asia are carrying an essay I wrote recently for Project Syndicate..., which argues that many critical needs in Africa are being met and will be met going forward by Indians and Chinese. ...

Maybe Africa is no longer a “white man’s burden,” not because we have been persuaded by NYU professor William Easterley to abandon the continent, but rather because Chinese and Indians have supplanted (or will) Westerners in the task of “saving” Africa. The irony is delicious, and the practical implications enormous.   

While Westerners debate amongst themselves whether foreign-aid to Africa helps or hurts — a debate, I think, is increasingly irrelevant — Indians and Chinese are pragmatically (if not always effectively) engaging Africa. ...

The essay is here.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Paul Krugman: Dealing With the Dragon

Paul Krugman says we’re having the wrong discussion about foreign policy:

Dealing With the Dragon, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...Almost all the foreign policy talk in this presidential campaign has been motivated, one way or another, by 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Yet it’s a very good bet that the biggest foreign policy issues for the next president will involve the Far East rather than the Middle East. In particular, the crucial questions are likely to involve the consequences of China’s economic growth.

Turn to any of several major concerns now facing America, and in each case it’s startling how large a role China plays.

Start with the soaring price of oil. Unlike the oil crises that followed the Yom Kippur War and the overthrow of the shah of Iran, this crisis wasn’t caused by events in the Middle East that disrupted world oil supply. Instead, it had its roots in Asia.

It’s true that the global supply of oil has been growing sluggishly... But the reason oil supply hasn’t been able to keep up with demand is surging oil consumption in newly industrializing economies — above all, in China. ... China has been responsible for about a third of the growth in world oil consumption. As a result, oil at $100 a barrel is, in large part, a made-in-China phenomenon.

Speaking of made in China, that brings us to a second issue. There’s growing concern in this country about the effects of globalization on wages, largely because imports ... from low-wage countries have surged, doubling as a share of G.D.P. since 1993. And more than half of that rise reflects ... industrial imports from China...

Last, but most important, is the issue of climate change, which will eventually be recognized as the most crucial problem facing America and the world — maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives.

China is already, by some estimates, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. And as with oil demand, China plays a disproportionate role in emissions growth. In fact, between 2000 and 2005 China accounted for more than half the increase in the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide.

What this means is that any attempt to mitigate global warming will be woefully inadequate unless it includes China. ...

So what does all this tell us about the presidential race?

On the Republican side, foreign policy talk is all bluster and braggadocio. To listen to the G.O.P. candidates, you’d think it was still February 2003, when the national discourse was dominated by people who thought that American military might was sufficient to shock and awe the rest of the world into doing our bidding.

Memo: China has 50 times the population of Iraq.

The Democrats in general make far more sense. But among at least some of Barack Obama’s supporters there seems to be a belief that if their candidate is elected, the world’s problems will melt away in the face of his multicultural charisma.

Memo: It won’t work on the Chinese.

The truth is that China is too big to be bullied, and the Chinese are too cynical to be charmed. But while they are our competitors in important respects, they’re not our enemies, and they can be dealt with.

A lot of Americans, when they think about the next president’s foreign-policy qualifications, seem to be looking for a hero — someone who will stand tall against terrorists, or transform the world with his optimism.

But what they should be looking for is something more prosaic — a good negotiator, someone who can bargain effectively with some very tough customers and get the deals we need on energy, currency policy and carbon credits.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

China’s Ability to Gain Technology from Foreign Firms

A colleague, Bruce Blonigen, and his co-author Alyson Ma say there's little evidence to support the view that "China extracts rents and technology from foreign competitors, thus allowing it to grow even faster and longer than most would have imagined possible." China has managed to attract considerable foreign investment, but that investment has only had a moderate impact on technology transfer and the sophistication of Chinese firms:

Will China soon be making not only cheaper, but also better, products than everyone else?, by Bruce Blonigen and Alyson C. Ma, Vox EU: The opening of China and its breathtaking ascendancy to major-player status in world markets has led to significant hand-wringing by the rest of the world on many fronts. The huge outflow of cheap unskilled-labour-intensive products from China and its ramifications for wages and welfare in both developed and other less-developed countries has been a primary concern.

Recently, new hand-wringing concerns have been raised by various commentators. As it turns out, the composition of China’s exports is much closer to that of OECD countries than its level of per-capita income would suggest.[1] This has substantial implications not only for China’s ability to sustain its growth, but also for real wages of all workers in developed countries, not just unskilled ones.

A significant factor behind this surprising export sophistication by China may be the role of industrial policy to promote technologically-advanced industries. While it is well known that the Chinese government has historically had preferential tax treatment and free trade zones for foreign firms, it also often negotiates technology transfer arrangements with foreign firms. These are either through restrictions that limit FDI to joint venturing with a domestic partner or simply offering quid pro quo arrangements of technology transfer from the foreign firm to domestic ones in exchange for the foreign firm’s ability to sell to the huge Chinese market.[2]

A prime example of how this may be successful is a case in the auto industry. The Chinese government has always required foreign automakers to partner with domestic producers. Shanghai Automotive (a Chinese-owned firm) recently announced plans to start up its own factory to produce a luxury sedan after jointly producing autos in China with General Motors and Volkswagen for many years.[3]

The X-factor in all of this is China’s large and growing domestic market. It may be precisely the pivotal factor allowing China the leverage to wring out important and significant technology transfer concessions from foreign firms. China’s predecessors (such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) did not have this same advantage when pursuing their own industrial policies for growth in previous decades. Thus, one wonders if the upcoming growth of China will make the previous Asian miracles look pedestrian.

While the scenario we have just laid out is plausible, recent evidence suggests otherwise. China’s ability to gain technology from foreign firms and develop its own productive sophistication has actually not been that significant.

Continue reading "China’s Ability to Gain Technology from Foreign Firms" »

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Brad DeLong: Alignment Problem Shifts to China

Brad DeLong says that today, "the principal source of international economic disorder is made in China":

Alignment problem shifts to China, by J. Bradford DeLong, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Now that the dollar has dropped 43 percent from its high against the euro, the process of global financial rebalancing is seriously under way. ... At the moment, Europe is feeling most of the pain, as the euro's value has risen furthest and fastest against the dollar. But Latin America and Asia will start to feel distress as well, as the US sheds its decade-long role as the global economy's importer of last resort.

As long as imbalances of world trade and capital flows unwind slowly and smoothly, the magnitude of any global economic distress should be relatively small. Of course, it will not seem small to exporters and their workers who lose their US markets, or to Americans who lose access to cheap capital provided by foreigners.

Yes, the US might enter a small recession -- the odds are roughly 50-50... A formal recession, however, is not an overwhelming probability and is likely to be small.

The prospect of a truly hard landing -- one where global investors wake up one morning, suddenly realize the US current accounts cannot be sustained, dump dollars and crash the global economy -- is becoming less likely with each passing day.

Under two scenarios -- both concerning China -- the unwinding of global imbalances could cause regional if not global depression.

In the first scenario, China keeps up its attempt to maintain full employment ... not by stimulating domestic demand but by trying to boost exports further by keeping the yuan stable against the dollar and falling in value against the euro.

The effort to maintain the dollar-yuan exchange rate ... has already led to an enormous increase in the Chinese economy's financial liquidity. The consequences of this are now manifested in property and stock market inflation, but not yet in rampant and uncontrolled consumer price inflation -- at least for now.

But if China does not accelerate the yuan's revaluation, the world might see a large burst of consumer inflation in China in the next two or three years.

If so, the consequences will be a choice between stagflation on the one hand and the destructive run-away inflation of post-World War II Latin America on the other. The fall-out from this scenario, however, would be largely confined to Asia.

The second scenario is more dangerous for the entire world. In this scenario, once again China continues to attempt to maintain full employment by keeping the yuan undervalued. But this time, the Chinese government manages to restrain domestic inflation, so the US' trade deficit with Asia stops falling and starts rising again.

Five or six years hence, the world economy faces the danger of a sudden crash in the value of the dollar and the euro against Asian currencies.

Four years ago, I would have said that the principal source of international economic disorder was made in the US. That has passed as a result of the dollar's decline and the ebbing political strength of right-wing populist factions in the US that seek ever-greater redistribution to the rich fueled by ever-increasing tax cuts and ever-rising long-term deficits.

Today, the principal source of international economic disorder is made in China, owing to factions inside its government that hope to avoid a more rapid appreciation of the yuan's value. I cannot judge the strength of these factions, or whether they know that the falling US account deficit and dollar may reduce the urgency of adjustment in the rest of the world, but not in China.

Former US president Richard Nixon's treasury secretary, John Connally, once told a group of European leaders that while the dollar was the US currency, its misalignment was Europe's problem. Today, the misalignment of the dollar -- and the euro -- against the yuan and other Asian currencies is increasingly becoming Asia's problem.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Is Inflation a Threat to China's Stability?

In the comments at Martin Wolf's Forum, there is a very nice analysis of China's inflation problem from Yu Yongding:

Comment on "China: Inflation is not the big threat to stability" by Yu Yongding: It is fair to say that inflation is not immediate threat to China’s economic stability. However, there are many reasons for the Chinese government to worry about inflation.

First, China’s growth rate will be more than 11 percent in 2007. According to consensus until very recently, China’s potential growth rate was 8-9 percent. ... Perhaps, China’s productivity gain in recent years is great. However, ... it is hard to believe that China’s productivity ... has improved so dramatically that China’s potential growth rate has risen from 8 percent to 11 percent and will be able to maintain the current growth momentum without causing serious inflation. ... My guess is that there is excess demand in China and the excess demand is increasing. As a result, there is material inflation pressure on the economy.

Second, the recent food price hike cannot be entirely attributed to one-off external shocks. Virtually, prices of all inputs for food production, from feeding-stuff to fertilizer, have increased, which in turn may partially be attributed to demand-pull factors of the economy. ... Though the government will be able to contain the rise of food prices at a time via administrative methods, these factors are not one-off and will not go away automatically.

Third, inflation expectations have been established among the public. According to a recent survey by the PBoC, the public believed that inflation will deteriorate further. People have started to adjust their behavior correspondingly by withdrawing their deposits to buy shares and real estate, and pushing for more increases in wages and salaries. Therefore, at this stage, even if inflation is not a big threat to stability, worsening inflation expectations are.

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