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The China Puzzle By DAVID LEONHARDT    05/22/2009
Name:  Guest
Comments:  On Timothy Geithner’s first day as a Dartmouth freshman, while he was walking across campus on his way to register for classes in the fall of 1979, he heard a man speaking Thai — swearing in Thai, to be precise — from a balcony. Geithner found this amusing, because only a couple of months before, he left his home in Thailand, where his father worked for the Ford Foundation, to move to Hanover, N.H. So he stopped to talk to the man, who turned out to be David Keenan, a Chinese teacher at Dartmouth. The two quickly realized that they had a lot in common; among other things they attended the same schools, about a decade apart, in Bangkok and Delhi. (The cause of Keenan’s swearing, alas, has been lost to history.) Having established a rapport, Keenan then decided to do a little salesmanship. He urged Geithner to take Chinese, the only Asian language that Dartmouth offered at the time. Skip to next paragraph Related Q&A About Your Money (May 17, 2009) Bob Dinetz Geithner did, and found that he liked it. Learning another Asian language, he told me recently in his soaring office at the Treasury Department, “was a nice little piece of continuity for me.” He ended up majoring in government and Asian studies and taught basic Mandarin classes to make some money. After Dartmouth, he attended the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. He then spent three years at Kissinger Associates, working with Brent Scowcroft, the future national security adviser, and helping Henry Kissinger write chapters on China and Japan for one of his books. From there, he joined the Treasury Department and began a meteoric rise through the bureaucracy. In the five months since Barack Obama introduced him as the next Treasury secretary, Geithner has already run through what seems to be a career’s worth of images: the brilliant technocrat whose appointment caused stocks to soar; the neophyte public figure who flopped in his debut; the regulator who has grown too close to Wall Street; the Obama adviser with the same unflappable nature as his boss. One image that hasn’t yet attached itself to him, however, is his original professional image. By training, Tim Geithner is a China hand. And though the immediate financial crisis is likely to dominate his tenure at Treasury, the economic relationship between the United States and China may ultimately prove just as important. It could be crucial to preventing the next crisis.Over the past decade, China and the United States have developed a deeply symbiotic, and dangerous, relationship. China discovered that an economy built on cheap exports would allow it to grow faster than it ever had and to create enough jobs to mollify its impoverished population. American consumers snapped up these cheap exports — shoes, toys, electronics and the like — and China soon found itself owning a huge pile of American dollars. Governments don’t like to hold too much cash, because it pays no return, so the Chinese bought many, many Treasury bonds with their dollars. This additional demand for Treasuries was one big reason (though not the only reason) that interest rates fell so low in recent years. Thanks to those low interest rates, Americans were able to go on a shopping spree and buy some things, like houses, they couldn’t really afford. China kept lending and exporting, and we kept borrowing and consuming. It all worked very nicely, until it didn’t. The most obviously worrisome part of the situation today is that the Chinese could decide that they no longer want to buy Treasury bonds. The U.S. government’s recent spending for bank bailouts and stimulus may be necessary to get the economy moving again, but it also raises the specter of eventual inflation, which would damage the value of Treasuries. If the Chinese are unnerved by this, they could instead use their cash to buy the bonds of other countries, which would cause interest rates here to jump, prolonging the recession. Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, seemed to raise this possibility in March, in remarks to reporters at the end of the annual session of China’s Parliament. “We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S.,” Wen said. “Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.” In all likelihood, this was mostly posturing. Were China to cut back sharply on its purchase of Treasury bonds, it would send the value of the bonds plummeting, hurting the Chinese, who already own hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth. Yet Wen’s comments, which made headlines around the world, did highlight an underlying truth. The relationship between the United States and China can’t continue on its current path.It has already helped create the global economic crisis, by splashing cheap money around the world and enabling American indebtedness and overconsumption. This country is now suffering through its worst recession since the early 1980s, one that could ultimately become the worst since the Great Depression. In China, the collapse of global trade has eliminated 20 million jobs along the industrial southern coast, according to Beijing’s official numbers. One Obama adviser told me the real number may be much higher. So putting the global economy onto a more sustainable path will require dealing with the imbalances between China and the United States. In the broadest terms, this will mean that Americans must consume less and that Chinese must consume more. Domestically, Obama’s economic agenda is organized around the first half of this equation. He has said that economic growth must rely less on consumer spending than it has, and he is pushing for a series of investments — in education, science, medicine and alternative energy — the fruits of which are meant to replace consumption. But those fruits won’t mature as quickly as American households are paring back. For the sake of the global economy, persuading China to consume more will be crucial, too. It will also make a big difference to China’s 1.3 billion citizens. Most are still poor enough that consumption doesn’t mean yet another Barbie or iPod; it means basic comforts, like medical care and transportation. Moving to an economy based more on consumption and less on exports happens to be the policy of the Chinese government, and has been since 2003. Its latest five-year economic plan, announced in 2006, was organized around the idea. “The biggest problem in China’s economy,” Wen said in 2007, “is that the growth is unstable, imbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.” Remarkably, though, the Chinese economy has become even less reliant on household spending, and even more reliant on business and government spending, in recent years. Consumer spending now makes up about 35 percent of China’s gross domestic product, down from 40 percent in 2004 and almost 50 percent in the early 1990s. By comparison, the share is 54 percent in India, 57 percent in Europe and 70 percent in the United States. The challenge for Geithner and the rest of the Obama administration, then, is persuading China to live up to its own five-year plan.*** Given Geithner’s history with China, his tenure as Treasury secretary could hardly have gotten off to a worse start. As part of his confirmation process, senators gave him a long list of written questions. One question was from Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who has frequently criticized China for artificially holding down the value of its currency, the renminbi, who asked Geithner whether the U.S. should confront China on the issue. Geithner replied, in writing: “President Obama — backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists — believes that China is manipulating its currency.”The answer immediately became the big story about the confirmation hearing. It seemed to signal that the Obama administration would take a tougher line than the Bush administration on probably the most sensitive subject between the two countries. Many Chinese leaders were incensed. Foreign-exchange rates are maddeningly complex, but the debate over the renminbi is really just a part of the broader issue of the economic imbalances between China and the United States. When a country exports more than it imports, as China has, the value of its currency tends to rise. Exports then become more expensive (and thus decline), while imports become relatively cheap (and increase). It’s a self-correcting system that, theoretically, prevents big trade gaps between countries. But China has frequently intervened in the foreign-exchange markets to hold down the value of the renminbi and keep its exports booming. It has become less aggressive about doing so over the past few years, responding to international pressure, and the renminbi has risen more than 20 percent relative to the dollar. Still, many American economists say that it still appears to be undervalued by about 10 to 20 percent. The Chinese tend to take umbrage at this analysis, because it suggests their boom has come at the expense of others. 1 2 3 4 5 Next Page »David Leonhardt is an economics columnist for The Times and a staff writer for the magazine. His most recent article was an interview with President Obama.
 

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