With America’s latest market crash, the debt debate seems so ‘last week’ (hey, it was last week!), there is still much to learn from the tumultuous process. Niall Ferguson attempts to provide an outside perspective on the whole debt limit battle. It’s a pretty important outside perspective too; China:
Viewed from Beijing, it looked very different. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what more we could have done to vindicate the Chinese Communist Party’s position that Western democracy is a form of institutionalized chaos to be avoided by all sane Asians….
The antics of American legislators take on a new significance when you realize how our leading creditor interprets them. As Beijing sees it, the last three months have furnished ample evidence that—regardless of what the American rating agencies may say—the United States is no longer creditworthy. Even if Congress has pulled back from the brink of outright default, many in China view the debt deal as at best a temporary fix. As the Xinhua News Agency put it, the 11th-hour deal has “failed to defuse Washington’s debt bomb for good, only delaying an immediate detonation by making the fuse an inch longer.” Meanwhile, the unspoken intention of the Federal Reserve is to debase the dollar through “quantitative easing,” which translates into Mandarin as “printing money.”
We all know that China is not just a spectator in America’s budget battles, but a key constituency. Ferguson details China’s skin in our game:
According to official figures, mainland China holds $1.1 trillion in U.S.-government debt instruments. But it’s an open secret that the Chinese authorities also like to buy Treasuries via intermediaries in London, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Add the U.K. and Hong Kong figures and the total is closer to $1.6 trillion—about 17 percent of the federal debt in public hands. And if you include nongovernmental securities held in China’s international reserves, the U.S. debt to China rises to more than $2 trillion.
In that math one can see a rising power. In this math, provided by Robert Samuelson, can be seen a troubled, possibly falling power:
Europe represents about one-fifth of the world economy and buys about a quarter of American exports. While Europe’s debt crisis was confined to a few small countries, they could be rescued; other European countries supplied loans to substitute for the credit denied by private lending markets. In 2010, Greek, Irish and Portuguese government debt totaled about 640 billion euros (about $910 billion), less than 7 percent of the 9.8 trillion euros of debt of all members of the European Union.With Spain, Italy and possibly France now under financial assault, the situation changes dramatically. There are more debtor nations and more debt at risk. In 2010, Italy’s debt was 1.8 trillion euros; Spain’s 639 billion euros; and France’s 1.6 trillion euros. But there are fewer countries that can support a rescue; and some of them have heavy debts. Even Germany’s ratio of debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of debt in relation to its economy, was a hefty 83 percent last year, similar to France’s. (The big difference between France and Germany is that Germany’s economy is growing faster.)
The United States and most of Europe’s finances are hemorrhaging and both are showing rather pathetic attempts to get their houses in order. Unless their trajectories change quickly, they, particularly Europe, may be forced to answer a final question, posed by Samuelson, in the affirmative:
Would China contemplate bailing out Europe? If it did, there would be a stunning transfer of geopolitical power and prestige to China.