Friday, October 8, 2010

The IMF Bowl: the United States versus China

With the IMF annual meeting taking place this weekend in Washington, D. C., it is hard to pick on any other topic than what is happening in economics and finance in the world.

The underlying story: the United States has not been challenged, financially as well as economically, in many years and has grown comfortable with its position as the Number One Player (NOP) in the World.

Plot line: the United States will not fall from its position as NOP but other countries are becoming relatively stronger, especially China.

Scenario: China smells weakness in the United States position. When an “opponent” smells weakness, that “opponent” steps up its game. Most experts expected China to “step up its game” at some time in the future, but they did not expect this behavior to happen so soon.

Response: the NOP calls “foul”! The first reaction of the NOP is to claim that the “opponent” is cheating or playing dirty. The NOP tries to get those on the sideline into the game in order to overcome the pressure that the “opponent” is applying to the NOP. China bashing has become de rigueur in the United States, especially for those running for office in this fall’s elections. (“China-Bashing Gains Bipartisan Support,”

Script: the battle goes on. This conflict is not going to be resolved this weekend. Nor is the conflict going to be resolved at the G-20 meetings in November. The conflict, for the time being, is going to be played out on the playing fields. The “opponent” is going to push the NOP and is going to hit the NOP on many different fronts.

For example, another move by the “opponent’ is the effort by the Chinese to make its currency, the yuan, more global. Last week, electronic trading of the yuan began. Further efforts are underway to expand this trading to banks in the United States and in Europe. (“Yuan Goes Electronic in Global Market Bid,”

“China’s government has made a series of moves in the past year to encourage the yuan’s use outside China, an effort to become less dependent on the dollar for trade and investment. The moves are allowing pools of yuan to accumulate in bank accounts outside of China, particularly in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong banks have been trading the currency among themselves, but through over-the-counter trades where the banks contact each other directly or through brokers.”

This new move will mean that prices and trading amounts will be posted for all to see.

The effort to improve its relative position in the world is not going to stop. China is making efforts on many fronts to strengthen its position in the world. The contest is on.

Leaders in the Obama administration, from the President to the Secretary of the Treasury on down, are speaking out more forcefully against the actions of the Chinese.

World leaders are observing this conflict and are trying to keep the discussions civil and “in bounds”. This is why someone like the managing director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as well as others, are attempting to temper the rhetoric and bring things into the existing organizations that deal with trade and international finance. (“IMF Chief Steps into Dispute over China’s Currency Policy,”

Players crying “foul” can only achieve so much. Sooner or later the NOP will have to modify its game plan and raise its play to another level. The “opponent” is not going to lessen its pressure as long as weakness in perceived in the NOP.

And, where does this weakness show? One very prominent place this weakness shows is in the value of the dollar. Since the early 1970s when the dollar was taken off the gold standard, the value of the dollar has declined by about 40%. Except for the “flight to quality” periods experienced during the financial unpleasantness of the 2008-2009 period, the dollar has continued to be in decline from the level it reached during the Clinton years. The international investment community is not “in love” with the fiscal and monetary policy of the United States government.

This contest between China and the United States is for real. The pressure from the Chinese is not going to abate anytime soon. The “rest-of-the-world” is not in any position to contain this conflict unless it shuts down world trade, something it will not do.

This means that the United States must get its act in order. The United States cannot compete with 20% to 25% of its industrial capacity not being used. The United States cannot compete with 20% to 25% of its labor force under-employed and not trained sufficiently to work in the modern economy. The United States cannot compete when its government creates incentives for people to protect themselves from credit inflation rather than engage in productive pursuits.
And, fiscal stimulus by the government and quantitative easing on the part of the monetary authorities will not correct these problems. They will only indicate to the Chinese how weak the United States has become.

This contest between China and the United States is for real. The only way the United States can “raise its game” is by focusing on what can make it more competitive. I don’t believe that the United States will ever again get the “free ride” it benefitted from over the past thirty years or so. So, the United States government must change the way it does business.

The Chinese are only the first in line to “take us on”. Right behind them are the Brazilians, the Indians, and, of course, the Russians, again. And, right behind them is a whole host of other nations.

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