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Monday September 21, 2009 - 20:38:08 GMT
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Does China Have a Lease on America's Future?

When yields on the 10 Year Treasury note were climbing to 4.0% last spring bond traders fears were focused three items: the Federal Reserve’s liquidity provisions, the Obama administration’s ten year deficit projections and the inflationary potential of both programs. The collapse in Treasury prices prompted the Fed’s entry into the Treasury market. Its $300 billons program to purchase government debt led to suspicions that the US Government had embarked on direct monetization of its debt, printing dollars to make up for the revenues it no longer had. As the Treasury began to auction its debentures these fears undermined confidence that investors would accept the new issuance at market rates.

Bloomberg US Generic Government 10 Year Yield

China and Russian were the most vocal about the danger to their American investments from a collapsing dollar but the risk applied to all holders of US notes. The Chinese and the Russians outlined their concerns in clear and unusually plain language. Chinese officials warned the US government to be mindful of its status as the world's largest holder of US debt and cautioned Washington to act as a careful custodian of its currency. The Russian were blunter, calling for a new world reserve currency to replace the dollar.

If the debt markets did not readily buy American notes because of worries about the US dollar, American bond rates would be forced higher dragging mortgage and other US rates with them. The US government’s efforts to limit the economic damage of the financial crisis and recession would be far less effective with higher mortgage and credit card rates. Few economists and officials then thought the American economy could tolerate a substantial rise in rates.

But rhetoric aside, the Chinese had reasons of their own to fear what would have been a dangerous fall in the Treasury markets and the consequent rise in American interest rates.

China depends on the world’s economy to buy her exports. If the US Treasury markets had cratered in the spring the effect on the US economy and the world could have been catastrophic. In the frightened atmosphere that risk was very high.

At the very least a collapse in the Treasury market would have heightened the sense of disaster that was just beginning to ebb, seriously deepened the recession and hastened the decline in world trade. In that febrile atmosphere a Chinese withdrawal from the US Treasury markets would have had global effects.

Chinese exports contracted dramatically in the late fall, winter and early spring. Factories closed, millions of migrant workers to the cities were thrown out of work bringing with them the specter of civil unrest which is never far from the minds of the rulers in Beijing.

When the US began its Treasury auctions China’s immediate self interest kept her actively involved. As the most visible of the world’s governments participating in the Treasury market any sign of actual withdrawal, as opposed to theoretical criticism, would have had a dire effect on the worldwide appetite for US debt.

China clearly had and has a present interest in keeping the US Treasury market from sinking and in keeping US rates low and the US economy on track for the strongest recovery possible. But there is also a long term Chinese interest in fostering the US debt binge.

The Obama administration has embarked on the largest expansion of US debt in history. Its legislative plans include the greatest addition to government services since the Depression. Such a program cannot be accomplished without the cooperation of the world’s credit markets; the leading buyers of US debt are other governments with China paramount. If China does not acquiesce to the increase in US debt the administration will have a much harder time enacting its plans. The most likely political result in Washington would be a curtailment of US Government spending and a drop in the amount of debt that the Treasury would have to issue.

But if the administration is able to complete its economic agenda the result will be an enormous increase of US debt and eventually higher taxes to pay for those programs and the debt.

The exaction that this debt will take from the US economy in lower productivity and economic growth will permanently alter the position of the US economy in the world. If the administration completes its agenda then the dollar will decline, slowly but inexorably, as the US economy slips from its position as the most vibrant mature industrial economy and loses it position as the world's largest national economy.

The possibility for a devaluation of Chinese dollar holding is very real but perhaps Beijing considers it a down payment on the future. Would it not be a worthy price to pay for assisting the self-imposed crippling of her greatest economic competitor?



Joseph Trevisani
Chief Market Analyst
FX Solutions,LLC


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