This morning I woke up in the dark to do a 7AM spot with Alexis on Fox Business Money for Breakfast. Our topic was Geithner’s first trip to Beijing to meet with the Chinese officials on U.S./China economic issues. What issues would be on the table?
That’s easy. They want to know what the U.S. is going to do to protect their $2 trillion in U.S. Treasuries and other dollar-denominated securities from inflation and a falling dollar. Doogie is going to try to convince them that we have it all under control—we will get that deficit down soon as the economy starts to grow again. They won’t buy it.
A few weeks ago I received a request for a private meeting with Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan to discuss economic issues between our countries. He was most eager to understand two things. First, why was the U.S. government spending so much money on the stimulus packages. (China’s stimulus package was not as big as advertized, mainly accelerated infrastructure projects that were already in the budget.) Second, why was the Federal Reserve flooding the market with dollars? Bank reserves in the U.S. have increased from $85 billion one year ago to roughly $1000 billion today.
I explained that the crisis first became visible in June 2007 when banks revealed they were holding some $300 billion of toxic (covenant-light) leveraged loans. From then until August, 2008 the Fed talked stimulus but walked tight money–bank reserves grew only 1% during this period–because the Fed acted to sterilize the impact of their newly-announced liquidity measures (Bear Stearns, AIG,…) by selling Treasury bills from their portfolio (idiots!). But in September, after the near run on money market funds, after depositors began to take money out of their banks in earnest, and after Lehmann died the Fed panicked and started shoveling reserves into the banking system, which is why reserves have increased 10x in 8 months.
Explaining the budget explosion was not so easy. Some economists in Washington actually believe that increasing government spending raises GDP growth like it says in the textbooks. (I am not one of those economists.) But most of the spending increase was the result of Hank Paulson’s ($700 billion) power grab last fall and the change in administrations that allowed the Obama team to come in and take advantage of the crisis by adding every program they have ever dreamed of to the Federal budget. As a consequence, Obama’s first (2010) budget will spend $1.8 trillion more than revenues and the CBO projects deficits of roughly $1 trillion per year, basically forever. (And the budget does not yet include national healthcare!)
To a holder of $2 trillion in U.S. securities all this isn’t the best news. He then asked a third question: what can china do to protect the value of its assets from U.S. inflation and a falling dollar? I told him that if I were in his shoes I would have a quiet conversation with Geithner and arrange a private transaction in which he would swap all his Treasury holdings for inflation-protected Treasuries, or TIPS.
I wonder what they are talking about at the meetings in Beijing today?