Thanks, China!

From Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek:

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Lawrence Lindsey wrote
about the Chinese government's policy of not allowing the value of the
yuan to rise against that of the dollar:

America, however, benefits from this arrangement. The Chinese clearly
undervalue their exchange rate. This means American consumers are able
to buy goods at an artificially low price, making them winners. In
order to maintain this arrangement, the People's Bank of China must buy
excess dollars, and has accumulated nearly $1 trillion of reserves.
Since it has no domestic use for them, it turns around and lends them
back to America in our Treasury, corporate and housing loan markets.
This means that both Treasury borrowing costs and mortgage interest
rates are lower than they otherwise would be. American homeowners and
taxpayers are winners as a result.

The Chinese are holding on to a Trillion dollars in US currency, with the main effect of subsidizing lower prices and interest rates for US consumers.  What a deal!  (I took a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the same issue here)  I know most commentators instead want to focus on the threat of China suddenly dumping those dollars, disrupting US markets.  People need to understand that the cost of doing the latter is enormous for China, not only in lost value of their dollar-denominated assets but in lost exports as the value of the Yuan would spike.  To test the hypothesis of holding dollars as a strategic weapon, would you feel more secure in the US if the government held a trillion dollars of yuan?  Why?  I would in fact feel more vulnerable to China, dependent on the health of their economy.  I personally am a big believer that Chinese investments in the US are great, and will act as a stabilizing influence in the future. 

By the way, while the above refers the Chinese government holdings of US financial assets, Cafe Hayek also points to an article by John Makin of the AEI who observes that the trade deficit is a misnomer, as the US is providing services that are not counted, specifically wealth-protection services:

In summary, Makin argues that one of the reasons foreigners sell so
many goods and services to Americans and then consistently refrain from
buying an equivalent amount (in value terms) of goods and services from
Americans is that foreigners have a high demand for "wealth-storage"
services supplied by dollar-denominated assets.

The fact that global savers accommodate U.S.
consumers by keeping U.S. interest rates lower than they otherwise
would be and the dollar stronger than it otherwise would be is simply a
manifestation of America's comparative advantage at supplying wealth
storage facilities.

In
other words, there's no real imbalance.  If the services supplied by
"wealth-storage facilities" were counted in international commercial
accounts as "services," then the U.S. current-account would not be in
deficit.

I have written before about why we should not fear the trade deficit with China, and why the word "deficit" is itself a misnomer, here and here.

  • bbartlog

    I largely agree with this analysis, though I think that the Chinese are behaving somewhat irrationally. The worry more or less is that their trillion dollar reserve gives them the ability to screw things up in new and interesting ways; however, I also think that global security is greatly improved by the mutual dependency this arrangement creates. We've achieved economic MAD without needing to spend any (extra) money.