James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Will China shift economic gears?

Aug 9, 2011 16:58 UTC

Hey, China’s got economic problems, too. Excellent piece on the challenges facing the Middle Kingdom:

The lift that keeps the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ model going – largely policy inertia tied to a massive stimulus plan and tight relationships between banks, state-owned companies, and local governments – can’t defy economic gravity forever. .. A policy shift towards building the middle class would bring a host of benefits: Freeing up financial resources to capital-starved small- and medium-sized enterprises to create durable job growth; reduced cement and steel production, two of China’s most energy intensive industries, to help lower inflationary pressures in commodities like coal, oil, and iron ore while also cutting emissions; and a boost in domestic consumption to relieve trade tensions as personal incomes rise along with imports.

This will require a degree of political will unseen to date. Economic modernization now risks stalling at best, and reversing at worst, with increased government control. … Without a true middle class revolution, China’s economic foundations will increasingly rest on shifting sands. Ghost towns will remain empty, property investors will see diminishing returns, and banks will struggle with increasing defaults. China may be a victim of its own success, arriving at an economic fork in the road sooner than expected – one path leads to enriching the masses, the other back to business as usual.

I doubt whether such political will exists in Beijing. Lots of powerful people and their families are getting rich from the current economic arrangement, so why push preemptive change. Like a football coach, leaders will keep running the same play until it clearly fails to work. That is my guess, at least.

China’s black box economy

Jul 5, 2011 21:03 UTC

The more you know about Rising China, the more you want to know. Minxin Pei gives some valuable perspective on the nation’s suddenly emerging debt problem:

Based on the figure released by the National Audit Office (NAO) at the end of June, local governments have accumulated debts totalling 10.7 trillion renminbi (RMB) or $1.65 trillion – about 27 percent of China’s GDP in 2010. Because the NAO’s figure was based on a sampling of 6,500 local government-backed financial vehicles (out of more than 10,000 such vehicles nationwide), the actual magnitude of local government indebtedness is much greater. The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, recently estimated that local government debt totalled 14 trillion RMB (most of which was owed to banks), almost 30 percent higher than the NAO figure.

… On paper, China’s debt to GDP ratio is under 20 percent, making Beijing a paragon of fiscal virtue compared with profligate Western governments. However, if we factor in various government obligations that are typically counted as public debt, the picture doesn’t look pretty for China. Once local government debts, costs of re-capitalizing state-owned banks, bonds issued by state-owned banks, and railway bonds are included, China’s total debt amounts to 70 to 80 percent of GDP, roughly the level of public debt in the United States and the United Kingdom. Since most of China’s debt has been borrowed in the last decade, China is on an unsustainable trajectory at the current rate of debt accumulation, particularly when economic growth slows down, as it’s expected to do in the coming decade.

The longer term effects of massive non-performing loans owed to state banks by local governments are likely to manifest not in the form of a banking crisis, but in other more insidious – yet equally – harmful ways. Because the Chinese state owns trillions of RMB in assets (land, natural resources, state-owned monopolies, and $3 trillion in foreign exchange), Beijing should have enough resources to bail out local governments when these loans have to be repaid. But there’s no free lunch. Bailing out local governments with valuable financial resources in the coming decade – a decade in which China will experience the end of the demographic dividend, rising costs of healthcare and pensions, and slower economic growth – will mean China will have less capital to invest. For an investment-led economy, this implies even more sluggish growth.

I dunno.  Covering local debt, dealing with an aging population — is there really enough dough left over for a military that can project power globally?


“Once local government debts, costs of re-capitalizing state-owned banks, bonds issued by state-owned banks, and railway bonds are included, China’s total debt amounts to 70 to 80 percent of GDP, roughly the level of public debt in the United States and the United Kingdom.”

It is clearly misguide and wrong statement. 80% of GDP is counting only US federal debt. If all local and state government added together using same measurement, it is way more than 80%.

Posted by jim1981 | Report as abusive

There’s supporting free trade, and then there’s being a sucker

Jun 22, 2011 13:04 UTC

When the country engaging in mercantilist-protectionist policies is also your banker, I guess you tend to look the other way. My fellow CNBC contributor Peter Navarro makes the devastating case:

For starters, we must puncture the myth that China’s main manufacturing edge is solely its cheap labor. Indeed, while low labor costs are a factor, when you carefully research the biggest source of China’s manufacturing advantage, it is actually a complex array of unfair trade practices, all of which are illegal under free-trade rules.

The most potent of China’s “weapons of job destruction” are an elaborate web of export subsidies; the blatant piracy of America’s technologies and trade secrets; the counterfeiting of valuable brand names like Nike and Chevy; a cleverly manipulated and grossly undervalued currency; and the forced transfer of the technology of any American company wishing to operate on Chinese soil or sell into the Chinese market.

Each of these unfair trade practices is expressly prohibited both by World Trade Organization rules as well as rules established by the U.S. government, e.g., the Treasury Department has sanctions against currency manipulation (which, alas, the Obama administration refuses to use against China despite campaign promises to do so).

Make no mistake. All of these real economic weapons have led to the shutdown of thousands of American factories and turned millions of American workers into collateral damage, all under the false flag of so-called free trade.

The second myth we must expose if we are to ever reverse the job-killing trade deficits we now run with China is the idea that free trade always benefits both countries. That doesn’t hold true if one country cheats on the other. Instead, when a mercantilist China uses unfair trade practices to wage war on our manufacturing base, the American economy is the big loser.

I am not sure of the solution here, though more vigorous pursuit of these issues in the World Trade Organization would be part of it, certainly. (And reducing our debt would reduce China’s leverage.) Otherwise, I mean, what is the point having a WTO? Though if you wanted to go further, especially on the currency issue, there is this idea from economist Peter Morici:

The United States should impose a tax on dollar-yuan conversions in an amount equal to China’s currency market intervention divided by its exports—about 35%. That would neutralize China’s currency subsidies that steal US factories and jobs. It is not protectionism; rather, in the face of virulent Chinese currency manipulation and mercantilism, it’s self defense.

I am for open trade and subjecting the U.S. economy to maximum competitive intensity. That will spur more innovation, productivity and economic growth.  China should do the same.


easy, restrained and stylish

Touring China!

May 22, 2011 03:16 UTC

My blogging has been particularly light of late. I am visiting several cities in China, including Beijing, Urumqui, Kashgar and Shanghai. I will be back full-force after Memorial Day, though I hope to post from time to time. A few quick thoughts on what has been happening back in the US:

1)  That the Gang of Six is now the Gang of Five is no surprise to me. I just don’t think Democrats have any real interest in reforming Medicare right now. And few Republicans want to raise taxes, even by eliminating so-called tax expenditures.

2) I have been asking the Chinese about the debt ceiling issue. I just don’t sense any panic on their part, even if it mean a brief payment delay. More on this to come.

3) If the Chinese elite had to choose between President Obama and President Jon Huntsman — the former US ambassador to China, I think  Obama is the easy winner there.

4)  And speaking of Huntsman, it seem like is supporting the Ryan Plan, or as least as much as any of the potential presidential candidates has.

Watch this space!




I know you’re out of country
but what is your take on this
Vermont single payer plan?
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/2 6/us-vermont-health-idUSTRE74P8942011052 6
Does this mean that they’ll not be party to any
fix imposed by federal mandates on Medicare and Medicaid
before 2024?

Posted by limapie | Report as abusive

If China’s provinces were countries

Feb 26, 2011 20:59 UTC

Great, creative graphic from The Economist:


Does America need a “tiger mother” economy?

Jan 20, 2011 14:41 UTC

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington has triggered debate about whether the United States should copy his country’s hands-on, interventionist economic model. But the Middle Kingdom’s feisty “tiger mothers” may provide a better guide for Washington policymakers than turning to Big Government, Chinese style. A new book extolling their tough-love approach could help America escape its debt trap and boost growth.

America is in a funk, beset by deep fear of decline and widespread worry that the economy is hopeless offtrack. This new Age of Anxiety started with the 2007-2009 financial meltdown. The crisis and subsequent government bailouts prompted some in the U.S. to wonder if their steadfast belief in minimal state intervention had run its course. To make matters worse, while America plunged into its worse downturn since the Great Depression, China kept right on growing and adding to its massive dollar hoard.

But the solutions to America’s long-term economic woes won’t be found by aping the mercantilist industrial policy coming out of Beijing. That’s how poor countries play catch-up, not the way rich countries lead and innovate. Even China understands at some point it will need to export less, consume more and loosen its financial system to more efficiently allocate capital.  Indeed, the U.S needs to push China much harder to open up its markets and dismantle its “Great Protectionist Wall.”

So rather than turn to Hu for answers, ask author Amy Chua. The child of ethnic Chinese immigrants, Chua is critical of the lax parenting style of many American parents. In “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” she says they’re too quick to praise mediocrity and too reluctant to enforce sacrifice for better academics. In short, Americans are not preparing their kids as well as the Chinese are to compete and succeed as adults.

Whether the thesis is true or not, Chua’s critique still manages inadvertently to capture the essence of what’s wrong with U.S. economic policy. Too much spending and consumption today, too little savings for investment tomorrow. A dysfunctional education system. A tax code that rewards lobbying over productivity.

Americans need to demand more of themselves and of government, even if that means some days of unpleasant sacrifice. Chinese mothers, according to Chua, set high expectations of their children because nothing helps confidence like achieving what didn’t seem possible. That spirit would serve the United States well about now.


neahkahnie, the only ones addicted to entitlements in the US are inner city blacks and corporations who think they need tax breaks to hire. Corporations are addicted to tax breaks, and when they don’t get their way, they leave the country. In fact, the US has the lowest corporate taxes in the developed world when you take into account the loopholes. People fail to realize this. Everyone else is still working their butts off, and considering the rise in US efficiency, they are working more than they have ever worked. People like you are buying into the corporate rhetoric that dominates news sources like reuters, fox, and CNN.

And if you think America’s youth are the McDonalds generation who wants everything now, i suggest you come and visit me in China. The youth here are so spoiled that I can’t see a good future for China at all. QQ anyone?

Posted by hujintaosson | Report as abusive

What to do about China?

Dec 20, 2010 19:21 UTC

More and more, I think, China will be the defining issue of the 2012 presidential campaign. This Weekly Standard piece by Irwin Stelzer is a must-read on the topic:

The Communist regime sees trade policy as merely one weapon in a war aimed at overtaking the United States as the world’s preeminent economic and, by extension, military power. The undervaluation of the renminbi is a necessary means of keeping China’s export machine running at full tilt so as to create jobs for the millions who are moving from the country to the nation’s cities. Lacking democratic legitimacy, the regime’s principal claim to the loyalty, or at least the submission of its people, is its ability to provide jobs and a rising standard of living, doubly important in this period of transition to a new generation of leaders in 2012. Americans chortle: that mercantilist program of subsidizing exports cannot be sustained forever, as the inflow of dollars will sooner or later trigger inflation. Right: indeed, that is already happening, and forcing the regime to adopt a variety of measures to curb credit and inflation.

But largely irrelevant in the longer term on which the Chinese are focused. By the time the Chinese decide they will have to allow the renminbi to appreciate, they will have accomplished two long-standing objectives. First, their vaults will be stuffed with an even larger hoard of American IOUs, enough to give them an important influence over U.S. foreign policy. “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” asked Hillary Clinton of the then-prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, at a luncheon last year. His answer is not recorded.

It is true that if the Chinese start to dump U.S. Treasuries and dollars, the value of their own piles of dollar-denominated assets would decline. But if the broader geopolitical objective were served, that would merely be a cost to consider as part of the military budget.

Second, by then the Chinese will have copied enough American and Western technology to be in less need of an undervalued renminbi—they will have made-in-China products that can dominate world markets even if their currency approximates its market value. The camels that trod the old Silk Road laden with spices and porcelain will have been replaced with air and sea freighters hauling solar panels and all sorts of goods based on copied technologies and purloined intellectual property. To cite just one example, the high-speed trains that China is now selling worldwide are based on technology brought to China by French, German and Japanese companies.

Is China ginning up its GDP data?

Dec 6, 2010 16:44 UTC

Is China one giant Enron? Well, maybe not. Clearly, there is real growth going on there. But this does seem fishy:

China’s GDP figures are “man-made” and therefore unreliable, the mn who is expected to be the country’s next head of government said in 2007, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

Li Keqiang, head of the Communist Party in northeastern Liaoning province at the time, was unusually candid in his assessment of local economic data at a dinner with then-U.S. Ambassador to China Clark Randt, according to a confidential memo sent after the meeting and published on the WikiLeaks website.

The U.S. cable reported that Li, who is now a vice premier, focused on just three data points to evaluate Liaoning’s economy: electricity consumption, rail cargo volume and bank lending.

“By looking at these three figures, Li said he can measure with relative accuracy the speed of economic growth. All other figures, especially GDP statistics, are ‘for reference only,’ he said smiling,” the cable added.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy to China was not immediately available.

Chinese economic numbers, especially at the provincial level and lower, have long been viewed with suspicion by analysts.

“That China’s GDP is not reliable, especially for local GDP, that is nothing new,” said an economist with a foreign bank who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing top national leaders. ”Some of the volume data, such as power and rail freight and even (bank) credit, are interesting because there is less incentive to massage them at the local level. But they reveal only part of the truth, not the entire truth,” he said.

Ouch. Then you start to recall all those stories about the nation’s empty cities and ghost malls

Geithner’s view may be askew

Oct 26, 2010 13:35 UTC

Ed Yardeni thinks Tim Geithner is off point:

Tim Geithner thinks he can solve the world’s economic problems by getting countries with large trade surpluses to reduce their surpluses and by getting countries with large deficits to reduce their deficits. The problem is that fixing the world economy isn’t as simple as suggested by Mr. Geithner. Multilateral approaches rarely work because it is so hard to get universal agreement on what to do.

China’s competitive advantage has less to do with the foreign exchange value of its currency than the pitiful provision of social welfare by the nation’s government compared to the abundance of social welfare provided by the American government. This is the major source of the global economy’s imbalance. This is why the US trade deficit with China has totaled $1.8tn since December 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization. That number contributed greatly to China’s record hoard of international reserves, which totaled $2.6tn during August. Think of that sum as the money that the Chinese did not spend on social welfare at home, but did so abroad, especially in the United States.

Problems must be recognized to be solved. There is, in fact, growing recognition of the causes of the global imbalance. The Chinese may be starting to move toward providing a better standard of living for their workers, though there is little discussion yet about providing a comprehensive social welfare safety net anytime soon. European social welfare states are moving to downsize their safety nets. In the US, the November 2 congressional elections will determine if Americans have the determination to bring back a modicum of fiscal discipline.


Chinese Supplier Survey: Yuan Appreciation Will Hurt Exports

We talk so much about how China needs to allow its currency, the renminbi (or yuan) to appreciate. We talk some about how an appreciation of the renminbi will bring back American jobs (by making Chinese exports relatively more expensive and U.S. exports relative less so) ­– though that is debatable. But we talk very little, if at all, about the effect of a renminbi appreciation on manufacturers, on workers, and on consumers in China.

It’s a gap I have been lamenting (and the reason we’re working to ask small and medium-sized suppliers in China what their perspectives are on U.S./China trade). So I was absolutely thrilled this morning to get a press release highlighting the results of a survey of Chinese suppliers. The bottom line? “China suppliers are convinced the yuan’s appreciation will affect exports negatively, even if the currency strengthens only 2 percent against the US dollar.” (It has already strengthened about that much since the summer.)

Find more survey results at http://futureofuschinatrade.com/article/ chinese-supplier-survey-yuan-appreciatio n-will-hurt-exports

Posted by USChinaFuture | Report as abusive

Why we don’t need a currency war, more Fed easing or additional stimulus

Oct 13, 2010 13:54 UTC

Great, great stuff from economic analyst Ed Yardeni, busting some myths and taking names:

1. The U.S. will prosper if the yuan appreciates. The number one urban legend today, in my opinion, is that if the Chinese stopped manipulating their currency and let it appreciate by say 20%, then the U.S. trade deficit would shrink and employment would rebound at a faster pace in the U.S. Didn’t the Chinese do that recently without the expected positive impact on the U.S.? Yes indeed. From mid-2005 through mid-2008, they let the yuan appreciate by 20%. It was then pegged again until it was allowed to move a bit higher in recent days. (See Fig. 26 in our China briefing book linked below.) America’s trade deficit with China was $248.8bn during the 12 months through July of this year. The Chinese simply manufacture lots of merchandise that the U.S. no longer produces because labor costs are too high in the U.S. The standard of living of U.S. consumers has improved as a consequence of cheaper imports. If the ones from China were made more expensive through currency appreciation or tariffs, the goods would be made in and imported from other low wage countries rather than made in the USA again. Besides, among the weakest sectors in the U.S. labor markets are construction and local governments. They have home-grown problems that have nothing to do with China. Productivity gains in sectors with high labor costs have cost some Americans their jobs, while they have boosted the real pay of those who remain employed.

Me:  Indeed, a new study out indicates that offshoring (and immigration) has not cost America jobs.

2. The Fed must continue to ease. Another Fed-inspired legend is that since the federal funds rate is down to zero, it means the Fed can’t do anything more to stimulate the economy. There is some bizarre chatter among Fed officials that based on the Taylor Rule, the federal funds rate should be negative! Indeed, FRBNY President William Dudley recently touted the idea that another $500bn in quantitative easing would be equivalent to lowering the federal funds rate by 50-75bps. The problem is that near-zero interest rates are depressing the interest income of many Americans. Americans may also understand that the only real beneficiary of such low interest rates is the U.S. federal government. So, the Fed is enabling the fiscal excesses of Congress. Eventually, such excesses must lead to higher taxes and higher inflation. In other words, Washington’s irrationally stimulative monetary and fiscal policies are getting offset by depressed rational expectations.

Me:  Low rates create more bubbles as investors search for high yields. The stage is not being set for strong, sustainable economic growth. But the lack of sound fiscal policy is pushing the Fed to act.

3. More fiscal stimulus is necessary. Keynesians continue to promote the fiction that government spending can create jobs through the fiscal multiplier effect. A significant portion of the 2009 fiscal stimulus program was directed at protecting the jobs of state and local public employees. Now that the stimulus is wearing off, they are losing their jobs anyway. The problem is that many of them are retiring early with huge pension benefits, making it impossible for state and local governments to hire more workers. The notion that the stimulus program wasn’t enough and that more deficit-financed government spending is required is nutty. What about more government spending on infrastructure? Congress regularly passes bills that purport to do that, yet the money never seems to show up as new roads, bridges, tunnels, and train tracks.

Me:  States need to restructure, and the their fiscal woes are forcing them to take action. Washington should focus on tax and budget reform ASAP.


Everything you state will prove to be true but the following idea is allowing China to laugh all the way to the bank and is killing any hopes of returning jobs back to the United States because it is simply not true. Their quality is awful but we will never have the opportunity to compete and demonstrate this until we find a way of throttling down their imports:

“The Chinese simply manufacture lots of merchandise that the U.S. no longer produces because labor costs are too high in the U.S. The standard of living of U.S. consumers has improved as a consequence of cheaper imports. If the ones from China were made more expensive through currency appreciation or tariffs, the goods would be made in and imported from other low wage countries rather than made in the USA again.”

Posted by Rethink | Report as abusive