Tag Archives: Frontline

From $10 Trillion to $23 Trillion in Debt

Frontline has an excellent show on how the United States got to $10 trillion in debt and what it will mean when it gets to $23 trillion in debt.  Hint: Fixing this financial crisis may make an even bigger one.

James Fallows writes in The Atlantic that China holds $1.4 trillion of that debt (we think).

Through the quarter-century in which China has been opening to world trade, Chinese leaders have deliberately held down living standards for their own people and propped them up in the United States. This is the real meaning of the vast trade surplus—$1.4 trillion and counting, going up by about $1 billion per day—that the Chinese government has mostly parked in U.S. Treasury notes. In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People’s Republic of China. Like so many imbalances in economics, this one can’t go on indefinitely, and therefore won’t. But the way it ends—suddenly versus gradually, for predictable reasons versus during a panic—will make an enormous difference to the U.S. and Chinese economies over the next few years, to say nothing of bystanders in Europe and elsewhere.

He goes on to say

Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.

Neither government likes to draw attention to this arrangement, because it has been so convenient on both sides. For China, it has helped the regime guide development in the way it would like—and keep the domestic economy’s growth rate from crossing the thin line that separates “unbelievably fast” from “uncontrollably inflationary.” For America, it has meant cheaper iPods, lower interest rates, reduced mortgage payments, a lighter tax burden. But because of political tensions in both countries, and because of the huge and growing size of the imbalance, the arrangement now shows signs of cracking apart.

In an article two and a half years ago (“Countdown to a Meltdown,” July/August 2005), I described an imagined future in which a real-estate crash and shakiness in the U.S. credit markets led to panic by Chinese and other foreign investors, with unpleasant effects for years to come. The real world has recently had inklings of similar concerns. In the past six months, relative nobodies in China’s establishment were able to cause brief panics in the foreign-exchange markets merely by hinting that China might stop supplying so much money to the United States. In August, an economic researcher named He Fan, who works at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and did part of his doctoral research at Harvard, suggested in an op-ed piece in China Daily that if the U.S. dollar kept collapsing in value, China might move some of its holdings into stronger currencies. This was presented not as a threat but as a statement of the obvious, like saying that during a market panic, lots of people sell. The column quickly provoked alarmist stories in Europe and America suggesting that China was considering the “nuclear option”—unloading its dollars.

A few months later, a veteran Communist Party politician named Cheng Siwei suggested essentially the same thing He Fan had. Cheng, in his mid-70s, was trained as a chemical engineer and has no official role in setting Chinese economic policy. But within hours of his speech, a flurry of trading forced the dollar to what was then its lowest level against the euro and other currencies. The headline in the South China Morning Post the next day was: “Officials’ Words Shrivel U.S. Dollar.” Expressing amazement at the markets’ response, Carl Weinberg, chief economist at the High Frequency Economics advisory group, said, “This would be kind of like Congressman Charlie Rangel giving a speech telling the Fed to hike or cut interest rates.” (Cheng, like Rangel, is known for colorful comments—but he is less powerful, since Rangel after all chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.) In the following weeks, phrases like “run on the dollar” and “collapse of confidence” showed up more and more frequently in financial newsletters. The nervousness only increased when someone who does have influence, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, said last November, “We are worried about how to preserve the value” of China’s dollar holdings.