David Leonhardt has written an insightful piece about how America and China are intertwined, mostly interesting as a statement of the rather significant problem.
Over the past decade, China and the United States have developed a deeply symbiotic, and dangerous, relationship. China discovered that an economy built on cheap exports would allow it to grow faster than it ever had and to create enough jobs to mollify its impoverished population. American consumers snapped up these cheap exports — shoes, toys, electronics and the like — and China soon found itself owning a huge pile of American dollars. Governments don’t like to hold too much cash, because it pays no return, so the Chinese bought many, many Treasury bonds with their dollars. This additional demand for Treasuries was one big reason (though not the only reason) that interest rates fell so low in recent years. Thanks to those low interest rates, Americans were able to go on a shopping spree and buy some things, like houses, they couldn’t really afford. China kept lending and exporting, and we kept borrowing and consuming. It all worked very nicely, until it didn’t.
The most obviously worrisome part of the situation today is that the Chinese could decide that they no longer want to buy Treasury bonds. The U.S. government’s recent spending for bank bailouts and stimulus may be necessary to get the economy moving again, but it also raises the specter of eventual inflation, which would damage the value of Treasuries. If the Chinese are unnerved by this, they could instead use their cash to buy the bonds of other countries, which would cause interest rates here to jump, prolonging the recession. Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, seemed to raise this possibility in March, in remarks to reporters at the end of the annual session of China’s Parliament. “We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S.,” Wen said. “Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.” In all likelihood, this was mostly posturing. Were China to cut back sharply on its purchase of Treasury bonds, it would send the value of the bonds plummeting, hurting the Chinese, who already own hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth. Yet Wen’s comments, which made headlines around the world, did highlight an underlying truth. The relationship between the United States and China can’t continue on its current path.
That China would be hurt by American hyperinflation is one of the greatest reassurances I can think of that we'll find some way to avoid it.