Sunday, March 13, 2005

China will pay - the bennies of empire

Recently I predicted (hey, I'm not alone!) that our party-days are numbered, that foreigners won't continue to fund our profligate ways. Nonsense, says Niall Ferguson. China will keep the taps open much longer for the US than for, say, Argentina. It's all the wages of empire, the ROI for our massive military and young warriors ...
The New York Times > Magazine > Niall Ferguson> The Way We Live Now: Our Currency, Your Problem

Every congressman knows that the United States currently runs large ''twin deficits'' on its budget and current accounts. Deficit 1, as we well know, is just the difference between federal tax revenues and expenditures. Deficit 2 is generally less well understood: it's the difference between all that Americans earn from foreigners (mainly from exports, services and investments abroad) and all that they pay out to foreigners (for imports, services and loans). When [only] a government runs a deficit, it can tap public savings by selling bonds. But when the economy as a whole is running a deficit -- when American households are saving next to nothing of their disposable income -- there is no option but to borrow abroad.

There was a time when foreign investors were ready and willing to finance the U.S. current account deficit by buying large pieces of corporate America. But that's not the case today. Perhaps the most amazing economic fact of our time is that between 70 and 80 percent of the American economy's vast and continuing borrowing requirement is being met by foreign (mainly Asian) central banks.

Let's translate that into political terms. In effect, the Bush administration's combination of tax cuts for the Republican ''base'' and a Global War on Terror is being financed with a multibillion dollar overdraft facility at the People's Bank of China. Without East Asia, your mortgage might well be costing you more. The toys you buy for your kids certainly would.

Why are the Chinese monetary authorities so willing to underwrite American profligacy? Not out of altruism. The principal reason is that if they don't keep on buying dollars and dollar-based securities as fast as the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury can print them, the dollar could slide substantially against the Chinese renminbi, much as it has declined against the euro over the past three years. Knowing the importance of the U.S. market to their export industries, the Chinese authorities dread such a dollar slide...

... there are three good reasons that the administration is tacitly delighted by the Asian central banks' support. Not only is it keeping the lid on the price of American imports from Asia (a potential source of inflationary pressure). It is also propping up the price of U.S. Treasury bonds; this in turns depresses the yield on those bonds, allowing the federal government to borrow at historically very low rates of interest. Reason No. 3 is that low long-term interest rates keep the Bush recovery jogging along.

Sadly, according to a growing number of eminent economists, this arrangement simply cannot last. The dollar pessimists argue that the Asian central banks are already dangerously overexposed both to the dollar and the U.S. bond market..

... Though neither side wants to admit it, today's Sino-American economic relationship has an imperial character. Empires, remember, traditionally collect ''tributes'' from subject peoples. That is how their costs -- in terms of blood and treasure -- can best be justified to the populace back in the imperial capital. Today's ''tribute'' is effectively paid to the American empire by China and other East Asian economies in the form of underpriced exports and low-interest, high-risk loans.

How long can the Chinese go on financing America's twin deficits? The answer may be a lot longer than the dollar pessimists expect. After all, this form of tribute is much less humiliating than those exacted by the last Anglophone empire, which occupied China's best ports and took over the country's customs system (partly in order to flood the country with Indian opium). There was no obvious upside to that arrangement for the Chinese; the growth rate of per capita G.D.P. was probably negative in that era, compared with 8 or 9 percent a year since 1990.

Meanwhile, the United States may be discovering what the British found in their imperial heyday. If you are a truly powerful empire, you can borrow a lot of money at surprisingly reasonable rates. Today's deficits are in fact dwarfed in relative terms by the amounts the British borrowed to finance their Global War on (French) Terror between 1793 and 1815. Yet British long-term rates in that era averaged just 4.77 percent, and the pound's exchange rate was restored to its prewar level within a few years of peace.

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