While countries struggle, muddling their way through stimulus packages and bailouts, China is being touted as everything from, “the best current place to invest,” to being, “the engine that will pull the globe out of its recession.” These entreaties and prognostications are sprinkled with reminders of the power it wields over America, given the huge dollar reserves that it holds. If I may quote Tony Soprano, “forget about it.”
China has asked rather politely, that the U.S. maintain its creditworthiness. No kidding? That plea was less a wish that the U.S. not skip town on its debt (devalue the dollar dramatically), than it was a declaration of a deep desire for a return to excessive U.S. borrowing. When the U.S. borrowed, it bought. When it bought, China prospered. This is rather basic, however, what is not so evident, or obvious to many pundits and experts, it seems, is the fact that China became inebriated through the glory days of consumerism. China now suffers the consequences of its acquiescence to a surety that the intoxicating euphoria enjoyed around the globe for a generation, would never end.
China understood that to become America’s principal provider of goods, it had to manufacture less expensively than anyone else. China excelled at squeezing productivity out of its labor force. It rapidly implemented a sweeping expansion of the necessary infrastructure to manufacture products faster, better (sometimes), and cheaper (always). New plants sprouted at an unprecedented rate. China’s expansion of its machine was based on an enormous assumption – the rate of growth it was enjoying through exports would continue unabated. It is now shutting down plants faster than it opened them. The capacity that was preparing for demand twenty years out, is now shutting down, and the Chinese are not about to ramp up their own consumption to energize reopening of the plants. While China has become a major manufacturer, the majority of its manufacturing is for, and on behalf of foreigners, selling established brands. China’s authoritarian “system” has made the creation and recognition of its own brands, all but impossible.
American consumers are not returning to the binge behavior of the past twenty years, although their ambivalence on trade with Asia persists. As for China, it focused on creating trade surpluses, and it adroitly squeezed its workers, but it did not prepare them, or its industries for broad based consumption. It has not created a self-sustaining, stable economic environment. China will dip into its coffers to stimulate internal employment, spending on infrastructure, or investing in what it knows best – export industries. Endeavoring to attract foreign investments, China will claim improvements in efficiencies, forensics, accountability and accounting practices of its indigenous infrastructure. The claims are beyond its ability to deliver. Until such critical elements as property rights, or a welfare breadbasket are implemented through appropriate taxation, Chinese consumers will be more prone to save, as they must individually concern themselves with how to pay for tomorrow’s meals.
Any cash China spends outside will go to acquiring natural resource producers for pennies on the dollar in the present climate, and countries, including Canada will be happy to sell out. This will do absolutely nothing for the long-term health of the North American economy.
There are currently foreign reserves of around $7.5 trillion held around the world with particular concentration of dollars held in East Asia, where since the late 1990s there was perceived need to protect against currency speculations, and a tendency, no, make that urgency, to feed (finance) the American engine driving China’s growth. We should note that the size of China’s reserve accumulations have, in the past couple of years, attracted the very speculation they sought to themselves protect from, which has further accelerated the bloating imbalance. The size of China’s dollar reserves forces a tentative, even precarious, equanimity between the U.S. and China, but it is a potent equilibrium nonetheless. It will be a long road traveled before China finds sustainable balance in savings, consumption, exports, and internally stimulated (broad based) investment. It will also be a long wait before we witness demonstrations of international responsibility emerging out of China. Until then, China will continue to flex its new-found influence to push for such things as an independent currency a few degrees removed from the dollar.
The world’s economic history has been fueled by leaps from one bubble to the next, but the current recession may have a long wait for the next bubble of consequence that will yank the world out of the doldrums. Whatever its form, it is not likely to come out of the less than transparent, state owned, and controlled economy of communist China. China has created a massive middle class in a single generation, but it has yet to empower it. China will not soon be supplanting Americans, or Europeans, in the mall line-ups yearning for China-made-American-invented-branded-and-engineered products. American consumers are unconsciously pushing back the clock on that empowerment of the Chinese middle class through their dramatic behavior modification of the past year. Like it or not, global economic stability will for the foreseeable future depend on the West, and very particularly on America.
Crossposted from The Pacific Gate Post
A constituent of the vast baby boomer generation with a career which has been fortunate to know the ponderous corporate worlds, as well as the intimately pressurized, and invigorating entrepreneurial domains of high tech and venture capital, I have harvested my share of mistakes meandering through corridors of enterprise from Silicon Valley, to London and endless, colourful, sometimes praetorian points in between. The voyage has provided an abundance of fodder for a pen yielding to an inquisitive keyboard, a foraging mind, and a passionate spirit.
Whether political or business or social or economic or personal, is it not all political? It is a privilege to write, and an even greater privilege to be read by anyone, and sometimes with the wind at my back the writing may occasionally be legible. I do not write to invite scorn, nor to invite respect, but if I get really lucky the writing can stimulate thinking. I also write for the very selfish purpose of animating my own processes, and engaging the best of what life offers. Above all, whether biting fire or swatting shadows, I am grateful to be gifted the freedom to write and publish whatever flows down to the keyboard. To all those who enabled this freedom, and to all those standing guard to preserve it, I am indebted.