Saul Leiter Phone call c1957
Don’t worry, we’re still talking virus, just from a slightly different angle. I was going to do something completely different, but then I saw an article at the South China Morning Post (SCMP) today that made me think “I don’t think that’s true”, realizing that at the same time many people would think it is.
Foreign holdings of US Treasuries are a misty environment for perhaps not just many, but most people. What triggered the SCMP piece is Trump’s threat, if it was ever meant to be one, to default on US dollar-denominated debt owned by China. Which by one estimate consists for about 70% of Treasuries.
And there are entire choirs full of voices willing to tell us that China can simply start dumping the -estimated- $1.2 trillion in Treasuries it holds, and threaten if not end the USD reserve currency status that way, if the US doesn’t “behave”. There’s little doubt that China would want this, but that doesn’t make the idea any more realistic.
What should give that away is, how easy can we make it for you, that it hasn’t done so yet. And now a conflict over the origin of a virus would trigger this? On a side note: if that origin is somewhere in China, even if it’s unintentional, how could Beijing possibly “admit” to it? How could it ever settle the lawsuits that would ensue?
No, the US cannot default on China’s holdings of its Treasuries. That alone would be a larger threat to the reserve currency status than anything anybody else could do, other then nuclear war. But at the same time, China cannot dump its Treasury holdings. because that would hurt … China.
And don’t forget that China and the US are in a symbiotic relationship of chief seller and chief buyer. Drastic changes in that relationship would -almost- certainly lead to consequences that neither can fully oversee, and that could hurt either or both tremendously.
Where are the US going to buy what they now buy from China? Who is China going to sell to what they today sell to the US? The countries are for all intents and purposes Siamese twins. Whatever can change, can only do so gradually. And even then.
No matter how much I read about it (a lot), this particular field is still not my expertise. But when I read the SCMP piece, it reminded me right off the bat of something that Michael Pettis, professor of finance at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets, wrote on May 28 2019, in an update of an article he wrote in January 2018 (all pre-virustime).
I liked Michael’s take from the moment it was published, because I learned a lot. I think you might too. I can’t do this without some elaborate quotes, but at least that will make me shut up a little. Please bear with me. I don’t find the SCMP piece all that interesting, but it’s good as a failing counterweight to Pettis.
With all that in mind, let’s take the SCMP piece first:
[..] White House officials have debated several measures to offset the cost of the coronavirus outbreak, including cancelling some or all of the nearly US$1.1 trillion debt that the United States government owes China. While analysts added that the US was highly unlikely to take the “nuclear option”, the mere fact that the idea has been discussed could well prompt Beijing to seek to insulate itself from the risk by reducing its US government debt holdings.
That, in turn, could spell trouble for the US government bond market at a time when Washington is significantly ramping up new issuance to pay for a series of programmes to combat the pandemic and the economic damage it is causing. “It’s such a crazy idea that anyone who has made it should really have their fitness for office reconsidered,” said Cliff Tan, East Asian head of global markets research at MUFG Bank. “We view this as largely a political ploy for [Donald Trump’s] re-election and a cynical one because it would destroy the financing of the US federal budget deficit.”
[..] any move to cancel the debt owed to China – effectively defaulting on it – would be counterproductive to US interests because it would likely destroy investors’ faith in the trustworthiness of the US government to pay its bills [..] The US Treasury two-year yield continued to trade near record low levels this week, suggesting market traders and fund managers are largely shrugging off what is widely seen as a far-fetched idea that the US could cancel some or all of China’s debt.
The whole idea that the US would default on its own Treasury debt is nonsensical. Why write about it? Is that only because you don’t understand what’s involved? And your editor doesn’t either?
Nevertheless, the news that the idea was discussed by top US officials is likely to raise concerns among Chinese leaders about the growing risks of holding a large amount of US government debt at a time when relations appear to be deteriorating rapidly, analysts said. Iris Pang, Greater China chief economist at ING Bank, said unless it had no choice, China would want to avoid quickly offloading its US government debt without first considering other punitive measures against the US.
[..] China could trigger a crash in the US dollar and financial markets by flooding the market with US Treasuries for sale, which would push down US bond prices and cause yields to spike. But that would also ignite a global financial catastrophe, hurting China as well. Instead, China could cut back or stop buying new US Treasury issues, which would gradually reduce its holdings of US government securities as old ones expire and are not replaced. “In the coming months, [China could] halt its Treasury purchases to send a clear signal of its intentions,” said Pang. “If it decides to do that, it could make actual sales [of its other holdings] at a later date.”
This is my central point here. The article says: “China could trigger a crash in the US dollar and financial markets by flooding the market with US Treasuries..”, and I don’t think that’s true. Yeah, they can do tariffs or buy less US soybeans, but then again, those have been linked by Trump to US purchases from China.
In the meantime, China may consider imposing tariffs of its own, or reducing its US agricultural purchases. China has agreed to buy an additional US$200 billion worth of US products and services over the next two years compared to 2017 levels as part of the phase one trade deal signed in January. [..] There have always been calls for China to diversify its US$3 trillion in foreign exchange reserve holdings, around one-third of which are held in US Treasuries. According to the latest US Treasury Department report, China’s holdings slipped to US$1.09 trillion in February from a peak of US$1.32 trillion in November 2013.
[..] “There’s a strong urge for countries like China, and Russia, to move away from US dollar settlements. This is simply because the US dollar can be weaponised by the US government,” said Xu Sitao, chief economist at Deloitte China, referring to the recent practise by the US government of cutting off foreign individuals, companies and governments from the global US dollar financial transaction settlement system, greatly complicating their ability to conduct business. “Clearly there’s more willingness for certain countries just to diversify and move away from US dollar settlements.”
Sure, but that’s old stuff, as old as the petrodollar. Still, the article supposedly deals with -life-during-and-after-COVID19. Has nothing changed? Well, perhaps not. But then why the article?
[..] David Chin, the founder of Basis Point Consulting, said China could be forced to toughen up its act if it no longer earned US dollars from its exports to the US because of a significant US-China decoupling. If that were to happen, China could sell its US Treasury holdings for yuan, seeking to engineer a collapse in the US dollar to end its status as the ruling currency. “Its ‘I die, you die harder’,” Chin said. “With no US export market, China would go the other way and rely on internal consumption, trade with Belt and Road countries and the rest of the world in their local currencies, and prepare to ‘eat bitter’ as local conditions worsen.”
If China doesn’t have the US as an export market, both go down, so I’m not sure why a news outlet would want to discuss this without providing the proper news “environment”. And anyway, it’s just not true. Here’s Michael Pettis very methodically putting the final nail in that coffin, and showing why the whole notion is just a load of crock.
China cannot sell off its holdings of U.S. government bonds because Chinese purchases were not made to accommodate U.S. needs. Rather, China made these purchases to accommodate a domestic demand deficiency in China: Chinese capital exports are simply the flip side of the country’s current account surplus, and without the former, they could not hold down the currency enough to permit the latter.
To see why any Chinese threat to retaliate against U.S. trade intervention would actually undermine China’s own position in the trade negotiations, consider all the ways in which Beijing can reduce its purchases of U.S. government bonds:
1) Beijing could buy fewer U.S. government bonds and more other U.S. assets, so that net capital flows from China to the United States would remain unchanged.
2) Beijing could buy fewer U.S. government and other U.S. assets, but other Chinese entities could then in turn buy more U.S. assets , so that net capital flows from China to the United States would stay unchanged.
3) Beijing and other Chinese entities could buy fewer U.S. assets and replace them with an equivalently larger amount of assets from other developed countries , so that net capital flows from China to the United States would be reduced, and net capital flows from China to other developedcountries would increase by the same amount.
4) Beijing and other Chinese entities could buy fewer U.S. assets and replace them with an equivalently larger amount of assets from other developing countries , so that net capital flows from China to the United States would be reduced, and net capital flows from China to other developing countries Beijing and other Chinese entities could buy fewer U.S. assets and not replace them by purchasing an equivalently larger amount of assets from other countries, so that net capital flows from China to the United States and to the world would be reduced.
These five paths cover every possible way Beijing can reduce official purchases of U.S. government bonds: China can buy other U.S. assets, other developed-country assets, other developing-country assets, or domestic assets. No other option is possible. The first two ways would change nothing for either China or the United States. The second two ways would change nothing for China but would cause the U.S. trade deficit to decline, either in ways that would reduce U.S. unemployment or in ways that would reduce U.S. debt.
Finally, the fifth way would also cause the U.S. trade deficit to decline in ways that would likely either reduce U.S. unemployment or reduce U.S. debt; but this would come at the expense of causing the Chinese trade surplus to decline in ways that would either increase Chinese unemployment or increase Chinese debt. By purchasing fewer U.S. government bonds, in other words, Beijing would leave the United States either unchanged or better off, while doing so would also leave China either unchanged or worse off. This doesn’t strike me as a policy Beijing is likely to pursue hotly, and Washington would certainly not be opposed to it.
I always thought this was a crystal clear explanation of what lies behind the threats that are continually uttered from both sides. One half of a Siamese twin can stab or poison the other, but what would be the outcome of that? And Pettis has more, and then much more at the link.
[..] Even if Beijing forced institutions like the People’s Bank of China to purchase fewer U.S. government bonds, such a step cannot credibly be seen as meaningful retaliation against rising trade protectionism in the United States. As I have showed, Beijing’s decision would have no impact at all on the U.S. balance of payments, or it would have a positive impact.
It would have almost no impact on U.S. interest rates, except to the extent perhaps of a slight narrowing of credit spreads to balance a slight increase in riskless rates. It would also have no impact on the Chinese balance of payments in the case that it leaves the U.S. balance of payments unaffected. To the extent that it would result in a narrower U.S. trade deficit, there are only three possible ways this might affect the Chinese balance.
First, China could export more capital to developed countries, in which case the decision would have no immediate impact on China’s overall balance of payments, but it would run the risk of angering its trade partners and inviting retaliation. Second, China could export more capital to developing countries, in which case the decision would have no immediate impact on China’s overall balance of payments, but it would run the very high risk of increasing its investment losses abroad. Or third, China could simply reduce its capital exports abroad, in which case it would be forced into running a lower trade surplus, which could only be countered, in China’s case, with higher unemployment or a much faster increase in debt.
The US cannot default on its debt because its reserve currency status would be shot. Trump knows that and still throws it out there. So what do you do as a serious journalist? Repeat that without as much as a question mark?
In the same vein, China cannot sell its USD-denominated assets, or at least not at any meaningful kind of pace. So what do you do as a serious journalist? You claim that it can?