On the one hand, the demand by China that the US somehow guarantee its $682 billion in Treasury holding reads like a political and negotiating strategem rolled into one. It reenforces the idea that the economic crisis is the solely the fault of the corrupt, profligate West and it constitutes a demand that the US will have to deflect (at best) or trade something for.
While Yu, the source quoted in the Bloomberg story, is not a government official, China has a practice of sending messages via articles and public statements from authorized parties. Moreover, the article indicates that similar views have been expressed by some government officials. The only open question regarding Yu’s comment isn’t whether it has some official support (it clearly does) but whether the group holding this position is actually in the driver’s seat (the central bank and finance ministry have been loggerheads over China’s position as a buyer of US Treasuries; if the finance ministry’s position has been represented accurately, it is more than a tad schizophrenic).
What is weird is this particular threat is empty. Stop buying Treasuries? Great! The dollar will tank (which is what the Fed should want, the 40% depreciation of the dollar in 1934 played a major role in reviving the US economy) which would hurt China export competitiveness (Stephen Roach, a Morgan Stanley economist who now heads their Asian operations, contends that China needs to devalue its currency. It thus needs to buy even more dollar assets to effect that).
Or this may simply be an effort to blow smoke. “We want assurances you won’t weaken the dollar because it will hurt our FX reserves.” That is one way of dismissing Tim Geither’s demand that China quit manipulating its currency, and the result would be that the dollar would fall relative to the yuan.
So this broadside seems either to be a retort to US demands (“you want us to let the yuan rise? Not unless you improve the quality of the guarantees on the paper we hold”) or part of a long-term effort to move towards a new currency regime (China resents the way the US has abused its reserve currency standing, and also wants a fixed price currency regime, seeing that as producing more stability, which in turn is more conducive to trade).
China seems not to recognize the peculiar position it has gotten itself in. Even if there were no worries about the US economy, even if it wasn’t constrained by the need to keep buying Treasuries to hold the yuan down. China could not sell its holdings to a meaningful degree without having a serious, adverse market price impact.
But regardless of the logic, having China say bad things about the US’s credibility as a debtor is not exactly what the Fed and Treasury probably want broadcast right now.
China should seek guarantees that its $682 billion holdings of U.S. government debt won’t be eroded by “reckless policies,” said Yu Yongding, a former adviser to the central bank.
The U.S. “should make the Chinese feel confident that the value of the assets at least will not be eroded in a significant way,” Yu, who now heads the World Economics and Politics Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in response to e-mailed questions yesterday from Beijing. He declined to elaborate on the assurances needed by China, the biggest foreign holder of U.S. government debt…
China may voice its concerns over U.S. government finances and the potential for a weaker dollar when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits China on Feb. 20, according to He Zhicheng, an economist at Agricultural Bank of China, the nation’s third-largest lender by assets.
“In talks with Clinton, China will ask for a guarantee that the U.S. will support the dollar’s exchange rate and make sure China’s dollar-denominated assets are safe,” said He in Beijing. “That would be one of the prerequisites for more purchases.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu said yesterday that talks with Clinton would cover bilateral relations, the financial crisis and international affairs, according the Xinhua news agency….
“The government will be a net buyer of Treasuries in the short-term because there’s no sign they have changed their strategy,” said Zhang Ming, secretary general of international finance research center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “But personally, I don’t think we should increase holdings because the medium- and long-term risks are quite high.”…
A decline in reserves “isn’t likely because of China’s huge twin surpluses,” Yu said. China “should diversify its reserves away from U.S. Treasuries if the value of China’s foreign- exchange reserves is in danger of being inflated away by the U.S. government’s pump-priming,” he said.
China may try to link trade and currency policy disputes to its future investment in Treasuries, said Lu Zhengwei, an economist in Shanghai at Industrial Bank Co., a Chinese lender partly owned by a unit of HSBC Holdings Plc….
“China can also use this opportunity to get a promise from the U.S. not to make inappropriate requests on bilateral trade and the Chinese yuan,” Lu said. “We can’t afford more yuan appreciation as the economy is facing a serious slowdown.”