Sit back and relax: the US and China, this is gonna take awhile

China exported its way to a $2 trillion dollar fortress of F/X reserves ($USD mostly), while the US borrowed its way into a hole deep enough to spark a vast global recession. Who’s to blame?

Given the symbiotic relationship in the chart above, it’s hard to blame any one individual, group, or even country. But blame we do. Martin Wolf, at the Financial Times, wrote an interesting article about the need for a “co-operative adjustment” of global current account deficits and surpluses. He argues the following:

China’s exchange rate regime and structural policies are, indeed, of concern to the world. So, too, are the policies of other significant powers. What would happen if the deficit countries did slash spending relative to incomes while their trading partners were determined to sustain their own excess of output over incomes and export the difference? Answer: a depression. What would happen if deficit countries sustained domestic demand with massive and open-ended fiscal deficits? Answer: a wave of fiscal crises.

It sounds so imminent: re-balance now, or else. Sure the tides of portfolio flows must change; structural current account imbalances are now proven to cause economic catastrophe, as illustrated by the 2-yr case study of late. But it’s not going to happen over night. It takes a long time for re-balancing of any kind to fully pass through. Just look at Japan in the 1990’s.

Data note: you can download Japan Flow of Funds data here, and US Flow of Funds data here.

The chart above illustrates the debt bubbles in the US financial crisis and in 1990’s Japan. In Japan, the households didn’t accumulate as much debt relative to the non-financial business sector; however, both sectors dropped leverage. And notice, that it took about a decade for households and firms to do so.

What’s overly obvious is that the Chinese will not be bullied into revaluing the yuan just because the US says so. And also evident is that there is a (very lengthy) de-leveraging process underway in key economies. By default, the debt-reducing developed world will force the Chinese to focus policy more inward (domestic demand) and less outward (export demand), as US consumers drop debt levels. But sit back and relax, it’s gonna be a while.

Rebecca Wilder

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