What exactly is China doing with all our money?

April 2, 2024
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In case you haven’t noticed, China runs a substantial trade surplus with the world and the United States in particular, and its foreign reserves come to $3.3 trillion dollars equivalent, and just under $1 trillion US. Actually, the US holding has declined slightly from its record, partly from diversification and partly from interest rates going up, I speculate. However, there is considerable speculation as to what China intends to do with that money. Certainly not turning around and buying goods and services from the United States; that would defeat the purpose of the trade surplus. Is there a plan to use it in some nefarious plot to destabilize the US economy or the world?

In my opinion, probably not. China’s currency reserves are a side effect of China’s overall economic policy, and may indeed be causing them a bit of a headache. The large bolus of foreign currency is just sitting there, waiting to cause a burst of inflation in China if the country ever decided to something with it.

In order to understand what’s going in China, a good starting place is, of course, postwar Japan, which China studied in order to crib its development plans. Consider first the concept of autarky. Autarky is the notion that an entity, such as a nation, community, etc., should be able to provide all of its needs with resources that it already controls. For a nation the size of China, or a supranational organization like the Warsaw pact, it is theoretically feasible, while of course attempts to try it in North Korea or Pol Pot’s Cambodia ended in disaster. The idea has waxed and waned in popularity over the years and is not entirely associated with Communist regimes.

Prior to World War 2, Japan’s effort to organize the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was itself an autarkic effort, but after the war Japan itself did not have the natural resources to engage in autarky. However, per R. Taggart Murphy’s excellent The Weight of the Yen, it was Japan’s economic policy was instead to switch to financial autarky, by building up its capital base without relying on foreign investment. The key method was to force the Japanese to save a lot of money while keeping interest rates low so that firms would have profits to reinvest and money to pay their large debt balances, and allowing the economy to become cartelized so that the profit margins of the businesses were protected so the high degree of leverage to fund capital investments did not result in bankruptcy. It also required international capital controls so that Japanese firms and citizens had no alternative but to invest in Japanese assets.

I believe that key elements of this policy were followed by China, with the added convenience that China was a command economy and could use heavy-handed regulation and state-owned enterprises rather than trying to force the outcome through a nominally capitalist system.

The economic effects of this policy, if it is effective, is to lower consumption in favor of investment, and to lower interest rates because there is more savings chasing investments relative to what businesses would normally have to offer savers. Now, in a vacuum the chief determinant on demand for capital goods in a free economy, other than interest rates, is the future course of the aggregate wage, which will impact future consumption. If the policy is expected to be unchanged, with consumption being artificially suppressed it is inevitable that there will be excessive industrial capacity and also excessive unemployment since there is no need to employ people to produce goods that no one will buy.

So, what to do? Enter the trade surplus. If the economy can undercut other nations and export to them, the excess capacity and unemployment can both be solved. The excess capacity problem is solved automatically, as the lower required return on assets will inherently outcompete higher priced foreign producers, while the lower interest rates weaken the currency, making your exports cheaper as well. The enforced lower standard of living also lowers production costs, making one’s exports even more competitive. The only downside is an artificially low standard of living, which is a surprising policy goal for a Maoist regime, but here we are. Apparently, China sees this as a worthy price to pay to avoid inflation and instability.

So, the accumulation of dollar-denominated assets is really a side effect of China’s policy, not their intended goal. In fact, by increasing demand for foreign assets the effect is to lower interest rates in China’s trade partners, which in a free market would make them weaker and the yuan stronger. However, China is capable of keeping its currency peg in effect through capital controls. In theory, the lower interest rates facilitated in our country could result in inflation, so the Chinese are exporting inflation as well as importing employment.

One wonders, though, if at some point China will determine that the capital stock of the nation has become adequate and there is scope to reverse this policy. I think it will be a difficult adjustment, in the sense that there vested interests resulting in policy inertia, partly the fear of releasing inflation, and part of it simply that capital is not fully interchangeable, and goods desired in wealthy foreign countries are not suitable for the domestic market. The overhang of uncompetitive state-sponsored enterprises would also have to be dealt with.

Even so, we are seeing signs that this development is taking place. China is now allowing its trade partners to settle its accounts in yuan rather than dollars, and has opened swap facilities with many trading partners, but since the source of the yuan is the Peoples’ Bank at the official Peoples’ Exchange Rate, this seems to be more of a method to avoid having to convert foreign currency into dollars and then into yuan than to actually turn the yuan into an international currency. This same facility is also allowing foreign businesses operating in China to borrow money in yuan as long as the proceeds remain in the country. Moreover, the recent weakness in the yuan is caused not by their policy but by the Federal Reserve and the ECB raising interest rates to tamp down post-COVID inflation. Even so, these steps are in my view not indications that China is ready to allow the yuan to be a fully international currency, or to abandon its trade surplus uber alles policy, and certainly these liberalization steps could even be reversed by administrative fiat, potentially leaving many trading partners in the lurch.

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