Benn Steil


A graphical take on geoeconomic issues, with links to the news and expert commentary.

China’s “Helping Hand” Won’t Help Germany

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies Monday, September 26, 2011

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently hinted teasingly that China might buy more risky-country European debt; a “helping hand,” he called it.  Yet even if China follows through, it is unlikely to increase its intended purchases of European debt but rather just change the composition.  China’s euro purchases have increased dramatically over the past two years (we estimate these to be ¾ of reserves purchased in excess of the change in China’s U.S. asset holdings).  Most of this can be presumed to have been invested in German bunds, Europe’s closest thing to U.S. Treasurys.  Chinese euro purchases over the coming twelve months equivalent to those of the previous twelve months could cover the entire 2012 net financing needs of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain (PIIGS), as the figure above shows.  Every euro China invests in new PIIGS debt, however, can be expected to come at the expense of bunds.  Such a diversion would push up German interest rates—precisely what Germany wants to avoid by resisting eurobond issuance—without giving Germany any greater say over eurozone fiscal policies.  Chancellor Merkel therefore gains little, if anything, in making political concessions to secure Wen’s “helping hand.”

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Is the U.S. Output Gap Overstated?

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies Tuesday, September 6, 2011

In its most recent update to the Budget and Economic Outlook, the Congressional Budget Office projects robust GDP growth of 4.4% in 2014 and 5.0% in 2015.  This projected spurt is unexplained, but appears to have been reverse-engineered from the belief that the United States should return to the trend growth it seemed to be following prior to the financial crisis—as can be seen in the figure upper-left above.  There is precedent for this: after the double-dip recession of the early 1980s, strong growth in 1983 and 1984 quickly closed the gap between actual and so-called potential levels of output—as can be seen above, upper-right.  But the CBO would be wrong to assume that economic history is destined to repeat itself.  In the early 1980s, industrial capacity continued to expand throughout the recession, while the labor force remained at the same level.  The recent downturn, however, has seen declines in both industrial capacity and the labor force of 2% and 5%, respectively—as seen in the bottom figures.  There is little justification for believing that potential economic activity has continued to grow while critical inputs to economic activity—labor and capital—have shrunk.  If potential output has shrunk along with them, then the U.S. faces considerably greater fiscal challenges than the CBO’s analysis implies. Read more »