Tuesday, May 25, 2010

China is Changing the World

Earlier, on March 25, I raised the question “Why Should China Change?” in my post, “Why Should China Change?” (http://seekingalpha.com/article/193689-why-should-china-change)
The thrust of the post was captured in the following:

“The world has changed and we in the United States have not accepted the fact.

Why should China change direction at this time?

China is growing stronger and stronger. The United States, and most of the rest of the west, is in a weakened state. The United States, and most of the rest of the west, has gone through a very severe financial crisis and the worst recession since the 1930s.”

The United States is still the number one power in the world, both economically and politically, but its relative position has changed. And we continue to see that in our relationship with China (and India and Brazil and Russia).

The current ‘high-level’ meeting in Beijing of representatives from China and the United States highlights the changing relations between the governments of China and the United States. As reported in the New York Times, “the opening session laid bare a recurring theme…the United States came with a long wish list for China…while China mostly wants to be left along…” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/world/asia/25diplo.html?ref=business)

China is “turning into an economic superpower” according to the Times article and wants to continue along on its merry way. The United States, other than initiating an all out trade war, seems incapable of slowing down the Chinese economic machine or even getting the attention of the Chinese leaders.

Chinese President Hu Jintao did pledge to continue reform of China’s currency, but then repeated the standard operating response: “China will continue to steadily push forward reform of the renminbi exchange-rate formation mechanism in a self-initiated, controllable and gradual manner.” That is, we will change things when we want to change things and no sooner.

Secretary of the Treasury Geithner graciously replied: “We welcome the fact that China’s leaders have recognized that reform of the exchange rate is an important part of their broader reform agenda.” What else could he say?

The United States, and most of the rest of the west, is in a weakened state. But, this weakened state goes beyond the short-run. The United States is facing longer run, structural problems it must deal with. Economic growth and financial strength are important factors in world economic power. However, when a nation extends itself and stretches itself too far due to over-commitment and over-leverage, thinking it can do too much, it exposes itself to other nations that are not in a similar position.

It is the United States, the number one world power that is asking China to change. China is in a position where it does not feel the need to cave into the American requests. China is strong and disciplined. The United States is strong, but undisciplined. Therein lies the difference.

And, the (supposed) allies of the United States are little or no help. Europe is attempting to resolve the problems it created for itself. As a consequence it is slowly fading into the background. The G-7 group of nations, the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and England, is losing relevance in the world. The G-20 includes the seven, but more importantly includes several emerging nations that are more strategic to the future than is the “old boyz club” from Europe.

De-emphasize the G-7 and raise up the G-20!

The ultimate problem of the United States is its lack of discipline. For the past fifty years or so, the United States has lived for “the short-run” because, we have been told, that “in the long-run we are all dead.” The economic policy of the United States has been designed to combat short-run increases in unemployment with a constant pressure to achieve high rates of economic growth. But, this creates an inflationary bias in economic policy. Because of this the United States has seen the purchasing power of its dollar drop 85% from January 1961 until the present time, underemployment has grown to about 20% of the working age population and the capacity utilization of its industrial base has declined to less than 75% at present (but rose to only slightly more than 80% in its most recent cyclical peak).

These are not signs of economic strength. Furthermore, the value of the dollar over the past forty years has dropped by approximately 35%. Huge amounts of United States debt, both public and private, have been financed “off shore”. These developments do not put America in a very strong bargaining position.

China thinks in decades. The United States thinks in terms of the next election. Discipline does matter.

There are still many economists in the United States who argue that the government must spend more and create more debt to get the country going once again. Their fundamentalist view of how the world works blinds them to the fact that it was the loss of fiscal discipline, the exorbitant creation of huge amounts of government debt and the subsequent credit inflation that this encouraged, that put the United States into the position it now finds itself.

More spending and more debt are not going to make the situation any better. I examined this issue in my May 13 post “Government Deficits and Economic Activity”: http://seekingalpha.com/article/204948-government-deficits-and-economic-activity. My basic conclusion was that in the present situation where the Federal Reserve has pumped so much liquidity into the banks that big banks and big companies can play games in world financial markets and cause major problems for areas like the euro-zone. The continued creation of deficits and more government debt is not going to solve this problem for Europe…or the United States.

Until it gets it act under control and in order, the United States will be the one asking China to change the way it does things. China, given the present circumstances, will continue to do things in their own interest and at their own speed. In addition, it is my guess that other, emerging nations will begin to exert themselves in similar ways. And, the United States will not be in a position to resist their efforts.

As I said earlier, “The world has changed and we in the United States have not accepted that fact.”

All we can really control is ourselves and if we fail to do that we give up the chance to influence others.

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