The Chinese are ascending from two hundred years of bad political and economic policies. A six day, sixty hour work week is not unusual and they save 30-40% of what they earn. The average Chinese believes in hard work and individual effort. They have to, there is no generous Chinese safety net for laid-off Chinese workers.
Compare that with the Obama fashionable collective thinking of the majority of US voters. There is no affirmative action in China. You work or get fired. You make money or go out of business. So sorry.
The trillion dollar question: China or America?
Who is going to come out of the economic crisis stronger and with the whip hand - China or America, asks Niall Ferguson.
By Niall Ferguson Telegraph
Published: 7:27PM BST 01 Jun 2009
Two years ago, economist Moritz Schularick and I coined the word "Chimerica" to describe what we saw as the key relationship in the then-booming global economy: China plus America. Cheap Chinese labour was making US corporations highly profitable. Spendthrift American consumers, in turn, were keeping Chinese corporations busy with export orders. And the Chinese monetary authorities were converting export surpluses into dollar denominated reserves with the aim of preventing their own currency from appreciating. The unintended consequence was a multi-billion dollar credit line to the United States, financing America's deficit at rock-bottom rates.
It was those low long-term rates – combined with monetary policy errors by the Fed, excessive bank leverage and reckless financial engineering – that inflated the American property bubble, the bursting of which triggered this crisis.
To simplify the story, think of an unhappy marriage in which one partner does all the saving, while the other does all the spending. (We all know at least one couple like that.) But then the partner with the retail therapy habit maxes out on his/her credit cards. At the same time, the parsimonious partner finds her/his job under threat. What previously was a stable relationship is suddenly on the rocks.
In February, the People's Daily acknowledged the "global importance and influence" of Chimerica, but warned of an impending "period of chillness". Could this be one of those great turning points in history, when the balance of power tilts decisively away from an established power and towards a rising challenger? It is possible. Financial crises often accelerate the gradual shifting of the geopolitical tectonic plates; they are to history what earthquakes are to geology.
It was inflation that undermined the foundations of Habsburg power and opened the way for the Dutch Republic. It was the disastrous Mississippi Bubble of 1718-19 that fatally weakened ancien régime France, while Britain survived the contemporaneous South Sea Bubble with its fiscal system intact. For most of the nineteenth century, financial crises in the United States had only marginal effects on the City of London. By 1907, however, a Wall Street crash could send a shockwave across the entire British Empire, a harbinger of a new era of American power.
Something similar may be happening as a consequence of the American financial crisis that began nearly two years ago. The flapping of a butterfly's wings may trigger a hurricane in the Home Counties; in much the same way, a crisis in the market for subprime mortgages could signal the waning of US hegemony and the advent of a Chinese century. Just visit the nearest bookshop if you don't believe me. There, alongside Fareed Zakaria's prophetic The Post-American World, you'll soon find Martin Jacques's darkly visionary When China Rules the World.
Just consider the impact of this crisis on the United States and China. According to the International Monetary Fund, the US economy will contract by 2.8 per cent this year – while China's is forecast to grow by more than 6 per cent.
The US stimulus package – worth $787 billion – has had rather a muted impact. The economy will do better in the current quarter than in the last one. But house prices are still falling at close to 20 per cent year on year. The rate of foreclosures per month is still rising. And a crisis in commercial real estate could blow a new hole in the balance sheets of US banks.
Moreover, no amount of stimulus can swiftly reduce the debt burden weighing down America's over-leveraged consumers. According to Bank Credit Analyst research, for household debt to return to a more sustainable level, real consumer spending would need to grow at no more than 1.3 per cent a year between now and 2013. If that calculation is correct, the Obama administration will have to junk its predictions of 3 per cent growth next year and 4 per cent the year after that.
China's stimulus is worth less in dollar terms – $585 billion – but Beijing is clearly getting more bangs for its bucks. In April, fixed investment surged by nearly 34 per cent. Net imports of iron ore leapt by a third, and imports of oil by just under 14 per cent. It's a measure of China's new economic influence that commodity traders attribute much of the recent upward pressure on oil, copper and other raw material prices to Chinese purchases. Indeed, China's growing presence in commodity markets in sub-Saharan Africa and South America – not just as a buyer, but also as an investor – has an almost imperial character to it.
Of course, China has not been wholly unscathed by the astonishing collapse of exports that struck Asian economies in late 2008 and early 2009. Many more Chinese than American workers have lost their jobs since this crisis began. Yet I do not believe (as some Sino-pessimists do) that the regime in Beijing faces a serious threat of social unrest. Like other rising powers in past centuries, China is imbued with a remarkable sense of patriotism that is not just a product of Communist Party propaganda. People are proud of their country's economic miracle over the past 30 years. After two wretched centuries, they believe China is on the way back. People whose grandparents survived the Great Leap Forward and whose parents endured the Cultural Revolution can surely cope with a decline in the growth rate from 11 to 6 per cent.
In short, it may be time to start believing the projections made by Jim O'Neill and his colleagues at Goldman Sachs, who predicted just a few years ago that China's gross domestic product could equal that of the United States by 2027. Three years ago, China did not have a single bank among the world's top 20, measured by market capitalisation. Today the top three are all Chinese. In 2006, the United States had seven of the top 20 banks, including the top two; today it has three, and the biggest, JP Morgan Chase, is rated fifth.
Even before its economy becomes the world's biggest, China can play a much more assertive role in its relations with the United States. The spouse with the money generally wins the argument, after all. Especially when the argument is about the other spouse's debts.
And what debts! The US federal government's deficit this year will be $1.84 trillion – roughly half of total expenditure and nearly 13 per cent of GDP. Not since the Second World War has the gap between income and spending been so huge. Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office anticipates that total debt will nearly double in the decade ahead. With the lion's share (around 70 per cent) of their $2 trillion of international reserves held in the form of US bonds, the Chinese are understandably alarmed by this tsunami of red ink. Last week's financial market action – which saw both bonds and the dollar drop sharply – will have caused palpitations in Beijing.
To be sure, China is still piling up those dollar-denominated bonds. In March alone, China's holdings of US Treasuries rose $23.7 billion. But Deutsche Bank recently predicted that Chinese reserves will rise by only $100 billion this year, compared with $418 billion last year. You don't need a Nobel prize in economics to know that $100 billion won't finance much of a $1.84 trillion deficit.
We know pretty much what Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is hearing in Beijing this week because the Chinese have been grumbling about American profligacy for months. "We have lent a huge amount of money to the United States," Wen declared in March. "Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am a little bit worried." Soon after that, on the eve of the G20 Summit in London, the Chinese central bank governor Zhou Xiaochun proposed that the US dollar might eventually be replaced as the world's main reserve currency.
"The United States is making policy decisions purely according to domestic considerations and is giving little thought to the outside world," complained Zhang Ming, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in April. "This being so, the Chinese government should prepare its defences. We can keep buying US debt but we have to attach some conditions."
The big question is: what conditions? For Mr Geithner knows the truth of the old adage: when you owe the bank a small amount, the bank has the power. But when you owe the bank a huge amount, it's the other way round. Luo Ping, a director-general at the China Banking Regulatory Commission, put it nicely in an interview back in February: "Except for US Treasuries, what can you hold? US Treasuries are the safe haven. For everyone, including China, it is the only option. We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion to $2 trillion [of bonds] we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys, but there is nothing much we can do."
"We hate you guys?" Now that really does have the ring of marital breakdown. Let's hope Mr Geithner is good at ducking crockery. Like divorces, major shifts in the balance of power are seldom amicable.
Niall Ferguson's 'The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World' is published in paperback by Penguin this week