By Arthur Kroeber

Is China’s credit binge a financial time-bomb waiting to blow the country’s much-vaunted economic miracle to smithereens?

Beijing has long bet that the problem of bad loans can be solved by pushing off the day of reckoning into the future, with rapid economic growth reducing the size of the problem.

So far that calculated bet has proved a sound one.

But the unprecedented expansion in bank credit this year, coupled with last month’s decision to roll over for another decade the bonds used to finance the first non-performing loan (NPL) workout of 1999, make it a good time to submit this policy to a stress-test.

By Arthur Kroeber

Is China turning into Russia? After last month’s arrest of the head of Rio Tinto’s iron ore business in China, reportedly on suspicion of spying, one could be forgiven for thinking so.

By Russia, we mean a country in which ordinary commercial negotiations are routinely subject to interference by state security forces, where foreign companies face constant risk of arbitrary abrogation of contracts and expropriation of assets, and business executives quite rationally fear for their liberty and occasionally their lives.

Fortunately, it appears that a lot of people within the Chinese government were asking exactly the same question, and desperately trying to convince their superiors that the correct answer ought to be “No.”

By Arthur Kroeber

“China’s spirit”, opined the People’s Daily in a recent editorial, is a “Great Wall” built to ward off global crisis.

In purple prose heralding China’s recent heroic successes, the editorial extols the Communist Party for leading China back from the global economic abyss after the country recorded 7.9 per cent growth in the second quarter of this year.

“This situation in China is in sharp contrast with Western developed nations, where the economic growth has kept sliding,” it concludes.

The nauseating tone of the editorial reminds us of a famous quotation by the Roman historian Livy, explaining why the Carthaginian commander Hannibal failed to destroy the Roman Empire.

“Capua was Hannibal’s Cannae,” Livy wrote. It is a judgment that China’s leadership (and smug editorial writers) would do well to heed today.

By Arthur Kroeber

Since 2006, financial reforms in China have been stuck in a rut. But for a number of reasons – most simply because Beijing now has little choice – we are now convinced that financial reform is going to be a far bigger part of the China story over the next three years.

The basic reason for this belief is not the intentions of regulators but brute economic reality.

By Arthur Kroeber

We had the somewhat qualified pleasure last week of attending the spring meeting of the International Institute of Finance — the assemblage of the great and the good of the world banking industry— which this year was held in Beijing.

Although as usual for such events there was a certain amount of high-level pabulum, two clear messages emerged from the cogent presentations by Chinese speakers.

By Arthur Kroeber

US Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner’s visit to Beijing this week is sure to reinvigorate debate about a new world order run by a “G2” condominium of the US and China.

Speaking at Peking University on Monday, Mr Geithner emphasised the importance of bilateral relations. “China and the United States individually, and together, are so important in the global economy and financial system that what we do has a direct impact on the stability and strength of the international economic system,” he said.
 
Now, it is perfectly accurate to note that the US and China have a uniquely symbiotic relationship, that they will soon be the two largest national economies, and that many important global problems such as climate change cannot be solved without the active participation of both.
 
Yet none of these facts, singly or collectively, implies that a Sino-American condominium is either a viable or a desirable outcome. Both logic and evidence, in fact, suggest the opposite.

By Arthur Kroeber

One baleful consequence of the global financial crisis has been a swarm of ill-informed commentary about the decline of the US and the dollar, and the rise of China and the renminbi. Such hyperbolic claims about a tectonic shift in global power relations are bunkum.

Since last November, the People’s Bank of China has initiated more than $100bn in renminbi swap lines with various other central banks, mainly in the developing world. There also has been lots of noise about increasing the use of renminbi in regional trade transactions.

These developments have led many to speculate that China aims to make the renminbi a major global currency, and that it is just a matter of time before the currency of the world’s largest creditor supplants that of the world’s biggest debtor as the major global reserve asset.

On the potential for the renminbi itself as a reserve currency, commentators frequently confuse three distinct concepts: currency internationalisation, reserve currency, and dominant global reserve currency.

Last week we wrote that China was unlikely to make a substantial contribution to discussions about reorganising global economic governance.

Hours after our post went up, it was neatly contradicted by Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), who published an essay on the bank’s website suggesting the creation of a new supra-national reserve currency to replace the US dollar. This was followed later in the week by another essay on how to secure global financial stability, and an article by a PBoC research institute on how to improve global economic regulation.

This was a salutary reminder that the Chinese government (or at least some members of it) can be a bit more agile than foreigners typically believe. It also sent a signal that China, unlike Japan, will not be satisfied with the status of a second-rate power. Japan in the 1980s expended enormous energy in fighting bilateral battles with the US but did little to make itself relevant to global economic decision-making. China has a long-term vision of its rightful place in the world and will work on a variety of fronts to secure that place.

That said, the PBoC papers are interesting more for their political than for their economic content. Their immediate aim was to establish a stance ahead of this week’s G20 meeting in London. The essence of that position is:

  • the root cause of this and previous financial crises was the special position of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency (and not, therefore, the “Asian savings glut”)
  • the self-regulation model for financial supervision touted by the US has been proved bankrupt 
  • global financial regulation (eg the Basel II accords on bank capital) needs to be made less pro-cyclical.

The second and third points fall well within the realm of conventional wisdom these days. But discussing them enabled Chinese officials to exact a little payback for all the sanctimonious hectoring they have had to endure from arrogant US officials over the years about the superiority of the American financial system.

Invoking a supposed principle of “oriental philosophy” that self-criticism is essential to self-improvement, the PBoC research department paper called on the US to exhibit remorse for its errors, stop blaming other countries for its problems, and reject the “prevalent complacency” that allowed its financial excesses to overwhelm the world. Such sermonising, though excusable, adds little to the sum of world knowledge.

Mr Zhou’s global reserve currency idea is more interesting. This is not because the proposal is likely to lead anywhere. There is almost no chance of that – as we suspect Mr Zhou knows.

But as a political statement it is ingenious. By arguing that the IMF should become the issuer of a new global reserve currency, Mr Zhou cleverly positions China as a champion of strengthening a rules-based multilateral system of global economic governance, rather than as a bare-knuckled aspirant hankering to knock off the current kingpin bully. Many have feared that China’s rise must be de-stabilising and that China will have no stake in “playing by the rules.” By identifying – accurately – the moral hazard and instability risk inherent when a single national currency serves the global reserve function, Mr Zhou articulates China’s national interest in promoting and participating in a rules-based, multilateral system.

This argument is directed at a domestic as well as an international audience. Some in the Chinese government fantasise that China’s big surpluses give it power, and that the renminbi can swiftly replace the dollar. Mr Zhou knows better, and is trying to steer the domestic debate in a more useful direction.

The second political purpose of Mr Zhou’s paper was presumably to suggest some conditions for China’s participation in the expansion of the IMF’s capital, which is a keenly-desired outcome of the G20 process. The rich countries want China to stump up US$100bn-US$200bn, largely to enable the IMF to bail out the bankrupt economies of eastern Europe. China rightly questions what benefit it would derive from paying such tribute. An expansion of its voting rights in the IMF is a paltry prize, both because it would take at least a decade under current rules to give China a voting share commensurate with its economy’s size, and because the IMF is marginal to global economic decision-making. By proposing a vastly stronger role for the IMF, Mr Zhou indicates that China deserves and seeks real influence, not meaningless trappings.
 
The global currency idea itself, however, is impracticable. Mr Zhou proposes that the IMF’s special drawing rights (SDRs) be converted into a global reserve currency, supported by large-scale issuance of SDR-denominated bonds. One obvious question is who would decide on the volume of SDR issuance – ie the size of the global money supply? The IMF is not set up as a central bank. The Bank for International Settlements is another possibility; but any multilateral institution would suffer from a diversity of masters with different political agendas and thus would find it difficult to shift monetary conditions decisively in times of crisis, which is an indispensable attribute of a central bank.

This points to deeper objections: reserve currencies are a reflection of political as well as economic power, and they are determined not by negotiation but by market activity. They are subject to “network effects” similar to those that apply for computer operating systems – the more people gravitate to a standard, the more incentive other people have to follow. Once a standard is established it is exceedingly difficult to dislodge.

Despite the current crisis, America’s political hegemony is secure and its ability to guarantee the long-term value of its debt securities is still superior to that of any imaginable political collective overseeing a global currency. The dollar’s position as the main reserve currency is still secure. But China has served notice that the US will need to work a bit harder to justify its “exorbitant privilege.”

Welcome to the Dragonbeat blog. Today, everyone with a serious interest in global issues needs to know about China. This blog expands the analysis of the Chinese economy previously found in the fortnightly column written by the China Economic Quarterly (CEQ) for FT.com. Dragonbeat’s principal writers are Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Dragonomics Research & Advisory, the parent company of CEQ, and CEQ managing editor Tom Miller. By moving to a blog format where you can expect a weekly post from us every Monday, we hope to provide a space where readers everywhere can share their views on China’s economy and its impact on the world. Our first blog post, written by Arthur Kroeber, is below:

The global financial crisis poses two challenges for China: one of domestic economic management and another of international economic diplomacy. How it addresses these two challenges will in large measure determine whether China takes up what it considers to be its rightful place as one of the world’s leaders, or subsides instead into a Japan-like irrelevance despite the size of its economy.

The domestic challenge is straightforward: China must find a new engine of productivity and employment growth to replace a long-running export engine that is likely to be out of commission for several years.

Dragonbeat is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Readers of the Dragonbeat blog can now go to www.ft.com/dragonbeat to read the new Dragonbeat weekly column for insightful commentary and analysis on China.

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