In last month’s New Atlantic, James Fallows had a fascinating interview with Gao Xiqing, Chief Investment Officer at China’s sovereign investment fund, and the man responsible for a significant chunk of China’s huge holdings of American dollars.
Gao – who Fallows dubs one of the US’s new banking overlords – thinks Americans need to learn some humility and fast.
“The simple truth today is that your economy is built on the global economy,” he says, “and it’s built on the support, the gratuitous support, of a lot of countries. So why don’t you come over and … I won’t say kowtow [with a laugh], but at least, be nice to the countries that lend you money.”
The US should disentangle itself from expensive overseas conflicts, Gao believes, raise its diplomatic game, and – above all – tell its citizens to get saving as part of a “long-term, sustainable financial policy.”
It’s all well and good, but maybe Fallows should have pushed Gao a little harder on whether China’s own financial policy is sustainable. After all, despite recent appreciation, the yuan remains substantially under-valued against both the dollar and the euro – the main reason why the Chinese has ended up holding so much Western debt.
Gao’s comments on the dollar are somewhat contradictory (and reflect all the ambiguity of China’s own dollar position). On the one hand, it defends its status as a reserve currency. The US is still the most viable and predictable market, he says. But on the other, Chinese investment in the dollar is widely unpopular at home. According to Gao, China’s citizens ‘hate’ its support of rich Americans (“people eating shark fins”) at the expense of “poor [Chinese] people eating porridge.”
More significant than public pressure, perhaps, is Gao’s belief that the dollar is highly likely to lose value over the short to medium term (with a corresponding appreciation for the yuan). This will wipe billions of Chinese reserves (reserves that have only been built up through consumption foregone) – while challenging China’s export-led growth model:
We are not quite at the bottom yet. Because we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. Everyone is saying, “Oh, look, the dollar is getting stronger!” [As it was at the time of the interview.] I say, that’s really temporary. It’s simply because a lot of people need to cash in, they need U.S. dollars in order to pay back their creditors.
But after a short while, the dollar may be going down again. I’d like to bet on that! The overall financial situation in the U.S. is changing, and that’s what we don’t know about. It’s going to be changed fundamentally in many ways.
Unravelling these imbalances seems certain to be ugly. Reading George Cooper’s book, The Origin of Financial Crises, on a plane the other day, I was struck by strong parallels between today’s economic woes, and a crisis we have heard little about recently – the ‘Nixon Shock’ that led to the end of the Bretton Woods system. Continue reading