This proposal by Arvind Subramanian in the Financial Times makes quite a lot of sense, but given the collective denial in the US about how bad things are (despite the cratering of the markets, neither Presidential candidate was willing to say the economy would get worse, when that is a given) and our dependence on China. And by the time we might be ready to ask for help, it will probably be too late. Americans are too wedded to the idea of our superiority, wrapped in the only slightly less offensive packaging of “exceptionalism” to realize that our economic crisis will lead to a permanently diminished standing.
I am not in agreement with the focus on helping homeowners in the proposed plan (I agree with the idea of extended social safety nets, particularly since that money will be spent, providing a cost-effective boost), but directionally, the idea has merit.
From the Financial Times:
The financial rescue plan passed by the US Congress is viewed as flawed but necessary to head off panic in financial markets and loss of confidence in the economy. It seems a holding operation, a Plan C or D that might need augmentation via a Plan A.
A vital component of a Plan A is likely to be additional money,,,
Where will this additional money – perhaps as much as another $500bn – come from? …
Enter China. Ken Rogoff of Harvard cheekily characterised the vast Chinese accumulation of US Treasury bonds over the past five years as the biggest foreign assistance programme in history. Why not push that further? Here is a thought experiment.
The Chinese government could offer to lend up to $500bn (from its current stock of $1,800bn) to the US government for the rescue of its financial sector. Its previous assistance – buying US bonds – was indirect and unconditional. Not so in this case.
China’s loan offer would be direct to the US government to be spent in the current financial crisis. More important, it would come with strings attached. Tied aid, the preferred mode of operation of western donors since the postwar period, would now be embraced by China.
What would be the nature of the strings – or “conditionality” as the US Treasury, a longtime practitioner of this art, has called it? Conditionality as imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund was underpinned by an ideology that favoured markets and globalisation. But there was also an assumption that either borrowing third world governments did not understand their benefits or the reformers there needed a “spoonful of sugar” to help overcome any internal opposition.
China would impose two conditions. First, it would declare that the offer of money was conditional on the US government’s adopting a particular approach to rescuing the banks, namely to favour in the next round the use of government money to recapitalise the banks. Europe has been using this approach and evidence suggests it is the most effective way of dealing with large-scale financial crises.
The US government – like third world governments in the past – has been unable to adopt the most efficient course of action. This stems from an ideological obsession against “socialising” banks or because inducement is necessary to overcome any domestic opposition to it.
The second condition would relate to “social safety nets”, which had become standard embellishments to World Bank/IMF adjustment programmes. China would stipulate that monies be devoted to cushioning the impact on vulnerable homeowners, so that they would not be forced into forgoing the American dream of home ownership. Chinese conditionality on this front would achieve an outcome that several economists on the left and right have argued for on grounds of fairness, and also to address the fundamental problem in the housing market.
For China, this offer of help would have three virtues. First, it would be riding to the rescue of a situation partly created by its own policies of undervalued exchange rates, which led to lax global liquidity conditions. Second, its economic interest would be served because successful US efforts at rescuing its financial sector could help avert an economic downturn, protecting China’s exports, its growth engine.
Perhaps most important, it would seal China’s status as a responsible superpower willing to deploy its economic resources for the sake of protecting the world economy. And if the means for achieving that are by providing the current hegemon with the largest aid package the world has ever seen with a healthy dose of sensible conditionality, well, what could be more statesmanlike than that?