Benn Steil


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

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Labor Data Show That China Is a Bubble Waiting to Burst

by Benn Steil and Dinah Walker
labor composition china

China “may have” overinvested to the tune of 12-20% of gross domestic product (GDP) between 2007 and 2011 – this is the diplomatically worded conclusion of a working paper released last week by the IMF.  This week’s Geo-Graphic backs it up.

As our figure above shows, the share of the Chinese labor force working in manufacturing and construction, at 38%, is roughly twice the global average – towering well above manufacturing powerhouses like Germany (25%) and South Korea (23%).  Manufacturing’s share of the Chinese work force, at 29%, is also 6 percentage points higher than the level at which other fast growing economies have typically begun slowing.  Once that share exceeds 23%, according to analysis by Barry Eichengreen, it “becomes necessary to shift workers into services, where productivity growth is slower.” Construction’s share of the Chinese labor force, at 9%, is also 2 percentage points higher than in the United States at the peak of the housing bubble in September 2006.  Labor data therefore suggest that China is headed for an extended slowdown in GDP growth. Read more »

Even Slowing China Is Fueling Global Growth

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

China’s economy slowed from a growth rate of 10.3% in 2010 to 9.5% in 2011 (and a 2000s peak of 14.2% in 2007), prompting fears that China could trigger a global slowdown.  Yet at 10% of world output, 2.5 times what it was in 2001, the Chinese economy is now so large that it will continue to make a significantly rising contribution to global growth even if its own growth rate continues to fall off moderately.

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The BRIC Twist Didn’t Work

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

China, Russia, and Brazil Bond Buying, 2009-11

On September 21st the Fed announced that it would be selling $400 billion in short-term Treasurys and buying $400 billion in longer-term Treasurys to replace them – a maneuver titled “Operation Twist.” Atlanta Fed president Dennis Lockhart explained what it would mean for the economy: “It means lower interest rates – a lower cost of borrowing – across a whole spectrum of loan maturities.” Is he right? Well, China, Russia, and Brazil have conducted their own version of Operation Twist over the past several years, replacing roughly $330 billion in short-term Treasurys with long-term ones. The 10-year Treasury rate went sideways over that period, as shown in the figure above. Whereas the BRIC* Twist may have put some modest downward pressure on longer-term rates, other factors overwhelmed it. Don’t expect much from the Fed’s similar-sized version.

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

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

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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China’s Imbalances Are Bigger than Reckoned

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

“How China’s external current account surplus will evolve in the coming years is one of the key questions on the economic outlook for China and the global economy both,” said a World Bank official in Beijing recently. The IMF presented its own answer to that question in a July 2010 report on the Chinese economy, forecasting a gentle, steady rise in China’s current account surplus, relative to its GDP, as shown in the top figure above. The forecast comfortingly shows the surplus staying well below its 2007 peak. Yet since China’s economy is growing much faster than the world economy, the IMF understates the upward trajectory of China’s growing imbalances with the rest of the world. This we show in the bottom figure, which projects China’s surplus relative to world GDP using the IMF’s own assumptions. By this measure, China’s surplus will surpass its 2008 peak within two years. If China continues to recycle dollars abroad at this pace, the global economy will become considerably more vulnerable to shocks from capital flow reversals.

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It’s (Almost) All Good on U.S. Trade Imbalances – China Remains Exception


The yearly U.S. trade deficit peaked at 6.4% of GDP in August 2006. It improved significantly after the financial crisis, bottoming out at 3.6% in January 2010. This swing provided a boost to GDP and nudged the U.S. external balance toward a more sustainable level. The deficit then resumed an upward march, reaching 4.3% by November. A closer look at America’s bilateral trading relationships since the deficit high-point in 2006 reveals a significant improvement with many countries, and only a small deterioration with a few others. China – with which the U.S. has its largest deficit – is the conspicuous exception, as the figure shows. 2011 looks set to be a year of yet further-rising trade tensions between the two countries. Read more »

Why China Should Revalue


China will hit a “growth wall” within the next three years, according to NYU economist Nouriel Roubini. The country’s reliance on fueling GDP growth through exports is unsustainable. He argues that China needs to revalue its currency so as to allow a transition from export-led to domestic demand-led growth. “The real income of households is going to increase, and they’re going to consume more. You export less and you consume more.” Is he right? Though there are more ways than one to skin this cat – domestic reforms that would facilitate faster rising Chinese wages, as advocated by Stanford economist Ronald McKinnon, are one way to fuel greater household spending – the data do indicate that Roubini is correct. As this week’s Geo-Graphic shows, when the renminbi appreciated significantly between 2005 and 2008 Chinese export growth slowed and household spending growth rose. This trend reversed after the pace of appreciation subsequently fell dramatically. This suggests that the Chinese government’s most recent five year development plan, which states that the government “must persist in the strategy of expanding domestic demand and maintaining steady and relatively fast development,” should include currency revaluation as a component policy element. Read more »

China’s Currency Head Fake


In the run-up to the June G20 summit in Toronto, China came under significant U.S. pressure to loosen its currency peg to the dollar. “The administration constructively set the G20 meeting as an important juncture for China to change its inflexible currency practices,” said Sander Levin, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on June 16th. “If China does not act and the administration does not respond thereafter, the Congress will act.” Then one week before the summit, China announced that it would relax the peg, and indeed the renminbi (RMB) began to rise. The political tension dissipated. Yet since July 2nd, five days after the summit, the RMB has ceased rising. It would appear that the much lauded Chinese currency pledge was a pre-summit head fake. Read more »

The Dangers of Debt: Russia and China’s GSE Dumping


In his recently published memoir, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson claims that Russian officials approached the Chinese in the summer of 2008 suggesting that both countries sell large amounts of debt issued by U.S. Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs), such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in order to pressure the United States into explicitly backing these companies. Paulson, who found the report “deeply troubling,” claims that China opted not to collaborate with Russia. Nonetheless, both countries dumped GSE debt that summer, as illustrated in the figure above. Russia sold $170 billion during 2008, while China sold nearly $50 billion between June 2008, when its holdings peaked, and the end of 2008. During this fire sale the yield spread between GSE debt and U.S. Treasury debt soared, as illustrated in the figure below. As GSE debt was widely used as collateral in the U.S. repo market, U.S. financial institutions were obliged to quickly pony up more securities to support their borrowing. This exacerbated the growing credit crunch. The U.S. government was forced to put the GSEs into conservatorship in September 2008. Secretary Paulson was more right than he realized to be concerned. The episode highlighted the clear risks to the United States, and indeed the wider world, of growing American dependence on foreign government lending. Read more »