Stories about the new Treasury report condemning China's currency policy probably had most readers going, "Huh?" Frankly, this is an issue that confuses professional economists, too. But let me try to explain what's going on.
Over the last few years China, for its own reasons, has acted as an enabler both of U.S. fiscal irresponsibility and of a return to Nasdaq-style speculative mania, this time in the housing market. Now the U.S. government is finally admitting that there's a problem - but it's asserting that the problem is China's, not ours.
And there's no sign that anyone in the administration has faced up to an unpleasant reality: the U.S. economy has become dependent on low-interest loans from China and other foreign governments, and it's likely to have major problems when those loans are no longer forthcoming.
Here's how the U.S.-China economic relationship currently works:
Money is pouring into China, both because of its rapidly rising trade surplus and because of investments by Western and Japanese companies. Normally, this inflow of funds would be self-correcting: both China's trade surplus and the foreign investment pouring in would push up the value of the yuan, China's currency, making China's exports less competitive and shrinking its trade surplus.
But the Chinese government, unwilling to let that happen, has kept the yuan down by shipping the incoming funds right back out again, buying huge quantities of dollar assets - about $200 billion worth in 2004, and possibly as much as $300 billion worth this year. This is economically perverse: China, a poor country where capital is still scarce by Western standards, is lending vast sums at low interest rates to the United States.
Yet the U.S. has become dependent on this perverse behavior. Dollar purchases by China and other foreign governments have temporarily insulated the U.S. economy from the effects of huge budget deficits. This money flowing in from abroad has kept U.S. interest rates low despite the enormous government borrowing required to cover the budget deficit.
Low interest rates, in turn, have been crucial to America's housing boom. And soaring house prices don't just create construction jobs; they also support consumer spending because many homeowners have converted rising house values into cash by refinancing their mortgages.
So why is the U.S. government complaining? The Treasury report says nothing at all about how China's currency policy affects the United States - all it offers on the domestic side is the usual sycophantic praise for administration policy. Instead, it focuses on the disadvantages of Chinese policy for the Chinese themselves. Since when is that a major U.S. concern?
In reality, of course, the administration doesn't care about the Chinese economy. It's complaining about the yuan because of political pressure from U.S. manufacturers, which are angry about those Chinese trade surpluses. So it's all politics. And that's the problem: when policy decisions are made on purely political grounds, nobody thinks through their real-world consequences.
Here's what I think will happen if and when China changes its currency policy, and those cheap loans are no longer available. U.S. interest rates will rise; the housing bubble will probably burst; construction employment and consumer spending will both fall; falling home prices may lead to a wave of bankruptcies. And we'll suddenly wonder why anyone thought financing the budget deficit was easy.
In other words, we've developed an addiction to Chinese dollar purchases, and will suffer painful withdrawal symptoms when they come to an end.
I'm not saying we should try to maintain the status quo. Addictions must be broken, and the sooner the better. After all, one of these days China will stop buying dollars of its own accord. And the housing bubble will eventually burst whatever we do. Besides, in the long run, ending our dependence on foreign dollar purchases will give us a healthier economy. In particular, a rise in the yuan and other Asian currencies will eventually make U.S. manufacturing, which has lost three million jobs since 2000, more competitive.
But the negative effects of a change in Chinese currency policy will probably be immediate, while the positive effects may take years to materialize. And as far as I can tell, nobody in a position of power is thinking about how we'll deal with the consequences if China actually gives in to U.S. demands, and lets the yuan rise.
Originally published in The New York Times, 5.20.05