Dollar Faithfuls

Next time I see an article with the words “dollar,” “collapse” and “China” in the same sentence, I’ll dump it straight to the recycling bin… I suggest you do the same.

The latest such gem comes in the form of an op-ed piece by “independent economist” Andy Xie in the Financial Times.

Xie’s thesis is that the Fed’s recent money-printing binge risks undermining global confidence in the US dollar as a store of value and (as a result) as a reserve currency. In turn, if loss of confidence prompts China to accelerate the process of deepening its financial and exchange rate markets, “the dollar will collapse”.

Big words, somber conclusions, yet unfortunately for Xie, his arguments are too thin to support them.

Let’s first get the money-printing argument out of the way. Coming from an “economist”, it reveals a puzzling lack of understanding of the reasons that made the expansion in base money since last September a necessity—namely the unanticipated surge in the demand for the safest and most liquid form of dollar assets—like, money(!)—by the private sector in the US and abroad, as the financial crisis escalated.

I do admit that the Fed’s decision to buy Treasuries does not easily fall under the “necessity” argument. It’s also one that I myself have protested many a time on both theoretical and empirical grounds. But, it’s also one that China should be happy about, as it serves to support the very securities that it holds in its reserves. Indeed, one of the (many) reasons I think the Fed’s Treasury purchases is a waste is the “leakages” that would arise IF the likes of China take it as an opportunity to sell their own holdings.

I don’t want to downplay “exit”-related risks—risks that the Fed is very much aware of and alert to. But the focus on base money expansion as a harbinger of the dollar’s future collapse is a very narrow one, because it is predicated on the assumption that adjustment in the real economy will not be forthcoming.

But this is a wild assumption. The future shape and structure of the US (and the global) economy is admittedly tough to predict but, in the meantime, adjustment has already been forthcoming. The US current account deficit has shrunk by 3% of GDP since its peak at end-2005; and the savings rate jumped back up to 4.2%, its level in the late 1990s, as spending declined. And while the explosion of the fiscal deficit looks scary, a closer look at the numbers suggests the impact on the national balance sheet (public+private) may actually be smaller than you think.

Specifically, CBO projections show that a good chunk of the surge in the deficit (some 5% of GDP) is driven by the TARP and Fannie/Freddie-related subsidies—which basically amounts to the public sector taking over private-sector liabilities. Unless the private sector begins to re-leverage soon, the net impact on the national balance sheet will be small.

In addition, on the revenue side, a big part of the projected decline is in the taxes on realized capital gains. In better years, these gains were partly directed to finance discretionary household spending—spending that won’t be repeated any time soon, unless we get a J-shaped upturn in the stock and housing markets. Translation: Higher household saving offsetting the fiscal dissaving.

The bottom line here is that adjustment is already happening–it’s just not the kind of adjustment that China likes to see, given the over-reliance of its recent growth model on US consumers.

Which brings me to a more important point: Xie’s focus on the potential flaws in the US policy response to the crisis diverts the attention from the blunders of China’s own policy framework, notably the glacial speed of its capital markets reforms.

If the ethnic Chinese have a problem, it’s in their own back yard: Their problem is that both their savings rate, and the assets to which those savings are allocated to, are determined, by and large, by their government.

This makes Xie’s suggestion that America should conduct asset sales to fix its balance sheet all the more laughable. I mean, dude, hello? US assets have been available for sale to foreigners for decades, be it an equity stake in Microsoft or a villa in the Hamptons. Only that interested buyers must be able to get their money out of their own country first. The ethnic Chinese can’t (with some exceptions), thanks to their own government’s policies. Meanwhile, their government invests in US Treasuries.

This brings me on to my next point… What will happen when China does move to liberalize its capital markets, floats its exchange rate and opens up its capital account (steps I would be delighted to witness in my lifetime)?

It’s far from clear that the dollar would collapse. Notwithstanding the stunning accumulation of foreign exchange reserves by the Chinese government, China on aggregate remains substantially “home-biased” compared to an advanced-economy average. Increased sophistication of its investors and its capital markets could therefore well imply a higher share of foreign asset holdings. The US dollar would be a lead beneficiary of this home-bias-reduction process, provided of course that the US retains a dominant share of world capital markets in the foreseeable future.

Finally, could the dollar collapse, say due to a spectacular screw-up by the Fed/Treasury/Congress combo? Possibly, but it, in my view, it will have to be a truly spectacular screw-up, given the absence of enough viable alternatives that can serve as havens of liquidity and safety. Moreover, one should consider the sharp adjustments that would be forced upon the rest of the world (e.g. the rapid correction of the Asian trade surpluses), which, in turn, would put pressures on the currencies of those countries to depreciate.

Not everything is rosy in the US dollar realm.. And flaws in the US policy response have been aplenty, especially as politics has inevitably gotten in the way. But rather than coming up with ominous warnings against potential US policy mess-ups, China should focus on acknowledging its own role into the genesis of this crisis and then do something about it. The world would welcome that, even as it still keeps its good share of US dollars!

Originally published at Models & Agents and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

5 Responses to "Dollar Faithfuls"

  1. Wilson Siu   May 12, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Dear Models & Agents,the point of Xie’s argument is about the current problem with the world’s reserve currency.Point #1 Your conclusion suggests that because China may have problems with its economic policies;therefore, the world’s current reserve currency is relatively safe.Point #2 Xie is an economist whose ethic background happens to be Chinese. Thus by no means you should consider him as a representative of Chinese.Point #3 Even if China does have flawed economic policies, how does that make the US dollar safe? You seem to suggest two wrongs make a right.Your conclusion should be rewritten as such:Not everything is rosy in the US dollar realm.. And flaws in the US policy response have been aplenty, especially as politics has inevitably gotten in the way. But rather than coming up with ominous warnings against potential US policy mess-ups, “Xie” (instead of China) could suggest focusing on acknowledging China’s own role into the genesis of this crisis and propose to the Chinese leaders to do something about it. The world would welcome that, even as it still keeps its good share of US dollars!Can you provide an analysis on why and how the US dollar is safe? Pleae don’t mix it up with two wrongs make a good again. Thanks.

  2. sage   May 12, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    wilson siu – excellent logic!

  3. Guest   May 13, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Good Argument wilson siu, I am with wilsonI would like to see a reply from author on wilson siu’s post

  4. Guest   May 13, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    the author obviously has an agenda, according to which we should continue to be arrogant and believe in form without substance, not worry about dolalr, economy, our country and our life, just continue partying, borrowing, buying, be happy and… die soon! what about our children?

  5. Flanders   May 14, 2009 at 2:34 am

    Consider this article as non-sense. Printing money a necessity?! Hello?!