[Marxism] Stephen Roach worries

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 24 14:49:40 MST 2006


My travel schedule is planned months in advance.  It was only by 
happenstance that I found myself in both Beijing and Dubai this past week 
-- two of the more recent flashpoints in a US-led pushback against 
globalization.  What I found in both cities unsettled me -- disappointment 
and frustration over America's attitude toward two of its major providers 
of foreign capital.  The United States has been having a good deal of 
trouble with its overseas image in recent years.  The feedback from Beijing 
and Dubai is that this image is going rapidly from bad to worse -- 
something a saving-short US economy can ill afford.

China is deeply troubled over the outright hostility from an increasingly 
xenophobic US Congress.  The senior officials I spoke with this week in 
Beijing protested on two counts -- China's fragility and America's penchant 
for scapegoating (see my 21 March dispatch, "Inside the China Debate").  On 
the first count, the Chinese don't believe that US politicians appreciate 
the potential risks that still lurk in this transitional economy.  Instead, 
they are pressuring China as if it were operating from a position of much 
greater strength.  China remains very much a tale of two economies -- a 
booming coastal region and a lagging interior.  Most in Washington view 
China from the lenses of Beijing and Shanghai, and conclude that these two 
thriving metropolises personify the emergence of a powerful and mighty 
nation.  What they don't realize is that only 100 km away from either city 
lurks a China that has changed very little in the past thousand 
years.  Yes, 560 million Chinese now live in urban centers around the 
country, although probably less than half these city dwellers have seen 
meaningful improvement in their standard of living over the past 30 
years.   Meanwhile, the rural population of some 745 million Chinese still 
tries to get by on $1-2 per day.

At the same time, despite 25 years of 9.5% real GDP growth, serious 
vulnerabilities continue to plague the macro structure of the Chinese 
economy.  The financial system has only just begun the long march toward 
liberalization and development.  Growth continues to draw the bulk of its 
support from external demand (i.e., exports) and autonomous internal demand 
(fixed asset investment).  Self-sustaining growth from the Chinese consumer 
is deficient, reflecting a pervasive sense of job and income insecurity 
that stems from ongoing reform-induced headcount reductions.  Far from 
letting the invisible hand of market-based capitalism drive price-setting, 
the visible hand of administrative fiat still plays a major role in the 
determination of prices of goods and services in the real economy, as well 
as interest rates, the currency, and the prices of many other assets in the 
financial economy.  All this speaks of a Chinese strain of market-based 
socialism that is still far too fragile to stand on its own.

China also feels that it is being victimized for America's structural 
problems.  Premier Wen Jiabao was crystal clear on that point when he ended 
the recent China Development Forum by stating, "It is unfair to make China 
a scapegoat for structural problems facing the US economy."  There's no 
dark secret what he was referring to -- China's important role as a 
provider of goods and financial capital to a saving-short US economy.  As 
long as America has a serious saving problem -- and, of course, the US net 
national saving rate plunged into negative territory for the first time in 
history in late 2005 -- trade deficits are a given in order to attract the 
foreign capital to fill the void.  If the Schumer-Graham bill closes down 
US trade with China through the imposition of steep tariffs, a saving-short 
US economy will simply have to divert a significant portion of its 
multilateral trade deficit elsewhere.  Undoubtedly, that means a 
higher-cost producer would have to take China's place as a low-cost 
provider of capital to the US -- imposing the functional equivalent of a 
tax hike on the American consumer.

When I pointed this out to Senators Graham, Coburn, and Schumer in Beijing, 
Senator Schumer said, "I understand the structural point, but China still 
has to give."  The editorialist in me says, if Washington -- or for that 
matter, beleaguered US manufacturers -- really wants China to give, then it 
needs to make that argument from a position of a macro strength and boost 
America's national saving rate.  Until, or unless, that happens, US-led 
China bashing is nothing short of political hypocrisy.   In the meantime, 
Washington could well be about to compound one of America's most serious 
structural problems -- at considerable expense both to the US and Chinese 
economies.  These are the "lose-lose" outcomes of globalization that can 
only end in tears.

In Dubai, I was met by a similar sense of consternation.  Fresh from the 
wounds of the rejected Dubai Ports World transaction, several major private 
equity investors in the UAE were blunt in expressing their sudden loss of 
appetite for US assets.  As one seasoned investor in US companies and 
properties put it to me, "As practitioners, as investors, we have become 
very shy of the US -- we just turned down a recent deal for that very 
reason."  Another added, "For us, foreign direct investment into the US has 
become far less palatable due to recent developments.  The bulk of our 
dedicated offshore money is now going elsewhere."   The comment that 
unnerved me the most took this exasperation to an even deeper level.  One 
investor asked, "What can we do to push back, to send a signal?"

I certainly don't want to make too much out of an unscientific survey of a 
few private equity investors in Dubai.  But up until recently, this was one 
of the Middle East's most pro-American investment communities.  The 
individuals I met with this week are seasoned participants of many a 
cross-border transaction into the US.  For them, the political shock wave 
from Washington has come from out of the blue, and they now see little 
reason to go back to the same well -- especially given the wide menu of 
less contentious alternatives available elsewhere in the world.  In the 
broad scheme of things, Dubai is a small player in the world of 
international finance.  But to the extent that the Dubai backlash is 
emblematic of similar distaste from other Middle East investors -- hardly 
idle conjecture, in my view -- the repercussion cannot be minimized.  Net 
foreign direct investment into the United States hit $128 billion in 2005 
-- an increase of $22 billion from the inflows of 2004.  If that trend now 
starts to reverse course, America's already daunting current-account 
financing problem will only get worse.

 From Beijing to Dubai, there is a growing undercurrent of economic 
anti-Americanism.  The irony of it all is truly extraordinary: The US has 
the greatest external deficit in the history of the world, and is now 
sending increasingly negative signals to two of its most generous providers 
of foreign capital -- China and the Middle East.  The United States has 
been extraordinarily lucky to finance its massive current account deficit 
on extremely attractive terms.  If its lenders now start to push back, 
those terms could change quickly -- with adverse consequences for the 
dollar, real long-term US interest rates, and overly indebted American 
consumers.  The slope is getting slipperier, and Washington could care less.



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