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Does Citigroup Need China?

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Dean Baker
The Guardian Unlimited, October 19, 2009

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Most of the economists and pundits who could not see an $8 trillion housing bubble are telling us that the United States desperately needs for the Chinese government to keep buying its debt. This crew of failed analysts argues that without the support of the Chinese government, interest rates in the United States will rise, choking off the recovery. In reality, the decision by China to stop buying U.S. government debt may not harm the economy’s recovery, but it could be devastating to the recovery efforts at Citigroup and other basket case banks.

The basic logic is simple. China’s central bank has been buying up huge amounts of dollar-based assets for the last decade. Their purchases include short and long-term government debt, mortgage backed securities, and, to a lesser extent, private assets.

The Chinese central bank’s purchases have two effects. First, they help to keep interest rates low. This supports economic growth by keeping down the interest rate on mortgages, car loans, and other borrowing that boosts demand.

The other effect of China’s purchase of dollar-based assets is that it keeps down the value of its currency against the dollar. This is the famed currency “manipulation,” that draws frequent complaints from politicians. Of course, it is not exactly manipulation. China has an explicit policy of keeping down the value of its currency against the dollar. It is not buying up hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. assets in the dark of night. It does it in broad daylight in order to keep its currency at the targeted rate.

Suppose China stopped buying up U.S. government debt. Interest rates in the U.S. would rise, which would have some negative impact on growth. Of course, the Fed could try to offset this rise in rates by simply buying more debt itself. It has already been buying debt and it could simply buy enough to replace the lost demand from China. This would leave interest rates largely unchanged.

Suppose that the Fed doesn’t intervene and lets interest rates rise. This will have some negative impact on growth, but there will also be a very positive side effect from China’s decision to stop buying dollars. The dollar would fall in value against China’s currency. This would make Chinese goods more expensive in the United States, leading U.S. consumers to purchases fewer imports from China and more domestically produced goods.

A lower-valued dollar would also make our exports cheaper in China. That would allow us to export more to China.

The net effect would be an improvement in our trade balance, bringing back some of the 5.5 million jobs that we’ve lost in manufacturing over the last decade. In fact, since nearly all economists agree that the current trade deficit can’t persist for long, China would be helping the country bring about a necessary adjustment if it stopped buying up dollars.

Even the rise in interest rates would have a positive effect since it would allow for the completion of the deflation of the housing bubble, with house prices finally settling back to their trend levels. This drop in house prices will be a painful adjustment, but there is no way to avoid it. Bubbles cannot be sustained indefinitely and we are better off allowing the housing market to return to normal so we can get back to a path of sustainable growth.

While the decision of the Chinese to stop buying dollars might be good for the economy, it is likely to be disastrous for Citigroup and the rest of the basket case banks. If interest rates rose, then the value of the government bonds they hold would plummet. If the interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds goes from the current 3.5 percent to a still-low 4.5 percent, then the banks will have lost 8 percent on their holdings. At a 5.5 percent interest rate, a rate that would still be far below the average for the 90s, the loss would be 15 percent. Citi and the other basket cases could not endure these losses in their current financial state.

This could be why we see shrill pronouncements from the likes of the Washington Post editors, and other “experts” who couldn’t see an $8 trillion housing bubble, that we need the Chinese government to keep buying up our debt. We absolutely do not need the Chinese government to keep buying U.S. debt and would almost certainly be better off if it stopped tomorrow. Citigroup and the other big banks do need the Chinese government to keep the money flowing if they are to have a chance of getting back on their feet. And we know where the sympathies of the Washington Post’s editors and other “experts” lie.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.