September 23, 2009
Chinese takeaway is paid for with American dollarsPosted in International Economy · 189 comments ·
The great and the good of the world are meeting in New York to discuss climate change today. This meeting is intended to clear the air before the Copenhagen Summit in December. Already the signs are that the Europeans and the Asians are annoyed with the Obama administration which, they argue, is foot dragging.
John Bruton, now the EU’s man in Washington, made a thinly veiled attack on the US Senate, suggesting that it only thinks of itself and expects the rest of the world to wait until it sorts out the US healthcare plan.
One country that is not waiting is China and it signalled a major initiative in New York yesterday. But China is not just playing the emission reduction game, the Chinese strategy is considerably more interesting and it reinforces the shift in global power between East and West.
Earlier this year, I spent a bit of time in China filming a new documentary and it is obvious that the Chinese realise the next big struggle will be the war for resources.
The Chinese understand the “peak everything” argument. They are not just worried about peak oil, they are concerned about the fact that the world has run up against the limits of its resources. Their officials were shaken by the spike in oil and food prices last year before the financial crisis hit. In comparison, they seemed to be quite unfazed by the financial crisis. They were much more concerned with the prospect of the world — and therefore China — running out of the hard material which makes the economy tick.
Speaking to some of its top officials, it was evident that they had thought about how they might secure resources and after a few hours talking to them, the strategy became clear.
Many well-placed commentators, particularly those in the financial markets, have been constantly bemused as to why the Chinese would keep lending to the Americans. China is now America’s banker; it holds close to $2 trillion of American government IOUs. It also has the world’s biggest stockpile of dollars in its reserves.
But why would this nation of smart gamblers hold the currency of a country that is busy inflating the value of that currency away?
The answer became clear to me as I walked around the desolate harbour of Port Hedland in the Pilbarra, Western Australia, a few weeks after my visit to China (the documentary is an ABC Australia/RTE co-production). The Pilbarra is the world’s largest iron ore mine. The scale of the place is mind blowing. You can almost taste the industrial economy here in the dust at the back of your throat. This is where China’s iron ore comes from and it is here that we begin the raw material journey for the steel which will end up in cars with ‘Made in China’ stamped on them.
The Chinese used to be happy buying the ore but now they want to own the mines. China realises that it has everything except resources, and in order to secure supplies in the future it must buy the mines not just the materials. So the Chinese government, via its big state-run commodity companies, is buying up mines all over the world from Brazil to Canada, Australia to Africa. And what are they using to pay for these assets? US dollars, of course.
If you talk to anyone in the commodities business, they will tell you that the Chinese are always paying “top dollar”, outbidding all others. Why would they do that?
They do this because the Chinese know the dollar will fall in value over the coming years. They look at Mr Obama’s bailouts and the associated money printing that is going on and they realise they have to lay off their exposure to American risk.
They can’t just simply stop buying American IOUs because to cut off credit to their major client would as a banker make little sense and as a manufacturer make even less sense. China is in a bind unless it can shunt American risk on to someone else.
China needs Americans to continue buying Chinese goods in order to keep the factories of the “workshop of the world” ticking over. So it can’t directly disengage from the US and start buying other currencies with its huge reserves. But nor does it want to become the NAMA of the world, overpaying for worthless assets just to keep the show on the road.
So it takes the dollars and buys real stuff with them, thereby laying off its American exposure and giving the dollars to someone else in return for mines, extraction companies and oil concessions.
For China this hits two birds with one stone.
It can reduce the financial risk of keeping America afloat and at the same time secure the resources it needs to keep its factories open. If the price of commodities goes up, China wins because at least it now owns them.
So, what it loses on the increased cost of raw materials when its factories buy them, it gains because China is also the seller.
All the time the US dollar weakens and so, for its long-term strategy, everything makes sense.
Until its own people begin to spend seriously, which could be a decade or two away, the Chinese have to keep America on life support.
At the same time, they need to secure resources. So they stitch up the rest of the world with dollars, which will be worthless against the Chinese Renminbi in a matter of decades. But in return they will own the most precious of all commodities, the raw materials of the earth, which are being depleted.
Now that’s what I call a Chinese Takeaway.