The shift that we are witnessing is the move of economic power from the West to the East. It is a well worn theme on Cynicus Economicus, that we are seeing the rise of China, and the fall of the US, and the process is now accelerating. Alongside the fall of the US, we are also seeing further declines in countries like the UK.
When I first arrived to work in China in 1997, I could see the emergence of an economic juggernaut. Sure, there were huge problems, and I encountered the legacy of communism in a generation of senior managers who were next to hopeless. Despite that, when I finally left China, I could see that the future was going to be Chinese. I could see a generation of hard nosed business people emerging.
The experience in China shaped my thinking on economics. On the ground in China I could see the massive investment from the West shaping a new and dynamic China. The Chinese welcomed us with open arms and, when I first arrived, were still somewhat in awe of the success of Western business. However, as time progressed, I also saw that Westerners were seen as a soft touch, who would overpay on everything.
The establishment of joint ventures was just one example of the many ways in which the Chinese would extract great deals. When I first arrived in China, all of the consultants were urging investments in joint ventures, and would prattle about notions such as 'guanxi', without any real knowledge of what they were talking about. The Western companies would send out a senior executive with orders to arrange a joint venture. When they arrived in China, they would be presented with four or five prospective joint venture partners, all of whom would have opaque business operations.
In the end, with all of the partners similarly opaque, the Western executive would settle on the least ugly partner. The documentation would then be drawn up, and the business would commence. It was at that point that the Western company would find out that they were supporting a whole raft of pensioners and other commitments in the joint venture. As part of the deal, the Western company would introduce new technology and process, train the management and the workforce. The trouble is that they were training the people ready for a new company to be established by their joint venture partner, and the new company would take all the technology, process and training, and open a competitor company. The competitor would be free of all of the social commitments and other costs.
Then there were the deals where, in order to win a contract, China would insist on technology transfers. I remember a GE power station turbine deal with technology strings attached, or the opening of an assembly plant by Airbus in order to secure deals in China. In so many cases, the price of doing business in China was risking the very thing that made the Western companies such a success; transfer of technology and process.
Then there is 'outsourcing', the rush to China to cut costs at the price of de-skilling the Western work force. It is not just the factory workers, but the designers and engineers who end up de-skilling. A good designer or engineer will understand the process of manufacture. Whilst there may be a legacy of good designers, as time goes by, the great design will emerge in the location of the manufacturer, and that will mean China. It will take time, but it will happen. The other trouble with outsourcing is that, as the manufacturers undertake the work, they will gain scale and experience, and will one day seek to move up the value chain. They will be in a position where all they need know is how to market and distribute their products. Outsourcing may make profit in the short term, but often at the cost of the future of the company doing the outsourcing.
Alongside this, there has been the artificial manipulation of currency by China, and no respect for intellectual property rights. The countries of the West have allowed this to take place, and now appear powerless to stop such practices.
There is a reason why I have returned to the subject of China. I have long argued that the ascent of China will progress far faster than most analysts and commentators suggest. I have long argued that China will emerge as the winner from this crisis, and have argued that their currency will be the new reserve currency in the future. Over many, many posts, I have tracked their steady process of internationalisation of the RMB, and consistently argued that the $US is so weak that it must collapse. I have returned to the subject as the mainstream media are finally really starting to understand what is taking place. Amongst the many articles, it is this article from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard that inspired me to return to the subject:
The article was a response to news (since denied) that China, France, Japan, Russia, and the Gulf states were planning to abandon the $US for pricing of commodities. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard argues that the currency of pricing commodities is of no importance, but this is something with which I disagree. This is what I had to say on the subject of the emergence of the RMB as a reserve currency in April:
Beijing does not need to raise money abroad since it has $2 trillion (£1.26 trillion) in reserves. The sole purpose is to prepare the way for the emergence of the yuan as a full-fledged global currency.
"It's the tolling of the bell," said Michael Power from Investec Asset Management. "We are only beginning to grasp the enormity and historical significance of what has happened."
"Everybody in the world is massively overweight the US dollar," said David Bloom, currency chief at HSBC. "As they invest a little here and little there in other currencies, or gold, it slowly erodes the dollar. It is like sterling after World War One. Everybody can see it's happening."
"In the US they have near zero rates, external deficits, and public debt sky-rocketing to 100pc of GDP, and on top of that they are printing money. It is the perfect storm for the dollar," he said.
"The dollar rallied last year because we had a global liquidity crisis, but we think the rules have changed and that it will be very different this time [if there is another market sell-off]" he said.
The self-correcting mechanism in the global currency system has been jammed until now because China and other Asian powers have been holding down their currencies to promote exports. The Gulf oil states are mostly pegged to the dollar, for different reasons.
This strategy has become untenable. It is causing them to import a US monetary policy that is too loose for their economies and likely to fuel unstable bubbles as the global economy recovers.
However, the real key to reserve status is when trade is more broadly conducted in the RMB, such as move to trading oil in RMB. Perhaps Venezuela will offer such an opportunity? An article here suggests that Venezuela may need to turn to China for financial support, and this may well present an opportunity for China to start this process:It appears that ambitions for pricing of oil in RMB are far more ambitious than I first thought. Whilst the story has been denied, there is an underlying logic to the story that belies the later denials. It is only a matter of time before we see commodities priced in RMB.In Latin America, the external funding situation remains relatively stable but in the case of further deterioration of capital flows, the solid economies would be able to tap the IMF or the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) for non-conditional lines of credit, while the economies with less sound macroeconomic frameworks such as Ecuador, Argentina and Venezuela would most likely only be able to obtain funds through more formal conditionality or by turning to lenders like China.Returning to the question of whether it is possible, I see no reason to prevent the RMB from taking on this role. There has been talk about the RMB not being 'liquid' enough, the lack of depth of their financial markets. However, I take a fairly simplistic view, which is to ask whether a currency has the underlying strength of being able to be used to purchase goods and services. The answer to this question is, of course, 'yes'.
In order for the RMB to succeed the $US as the reserve currency, it was always going to be necessary for the $US to collapse. The US has undertaken policy that will ensure such a collapse, and it is simply for the reason that the US is fiscally incontinent, printing money, and pouring the wealth of the future into zombie banks. When the $US falls, the US will finally see the forces of inflation unleashed, as the massive imports of commodities, goods and services surge in price. It is at this point that the underlying reality of where real economic power lies will finally become clearly visible. It is at this point that the real wealth generating capacity of the world will emerge into the light.
When the US is no longer able to borrow, when it is reliant upon what it actually produces, rather than borrows, it will be apparent how bad the situation has become. The same will be true of several other economies, such as the UK. For many years, these economies have been subsidised by the economies to the East and, without any further subsidy, they will find life is far harsher than they have ever imagined.
The rise of China is no mystery but, no doubt, the historians will manage to find controversy, manage to bury all of this under complexity. The economists will meanwhile suggest that the transfer of economic power emerged out of the banking crisis. The reality is far simpler.
The Western world was complacent, arrogant, and bloated. Collectively, the West allowed the emergence of a new competitor who used mercantilist policies to accumulate the modern equivalent of bullion, they allowed the export of all that had made their economies such a success and, when confronted with reality buried their heads in the collective sand of borrowing and money printing. Whatever happened, once China opened to the world, a new economic challenge was inevitable. However, the way that the West met the challenge has ensured that China will emerge as the great economic power.
As we move towards the end of 2009, we are entering into a new world, a new economic structure. We are witnessing a change in the world that will be viewed in hindsight as one of the defining moments of the 21st century.
Note 1: I have not referenced as many points as usual. However, many of the points made are consolidating the points made in previous posts, and these provide support for the case that I am making. I have listed some previous articles on China and the $US, if you are interested in seeing my case in greater detail, and the evolution of my thoughts on China's rise:
- July 2008, China - What Future?
- August 2008, China Propping up the $US
- January 2009, Free Trade 'Yes' - Mercantilism 'No' - Why China Should be Shut Out
- January 2009, The Myth of the Eternal Status of the $US as 'the' Reserve Currency
- February 2009, China's Pivotal Role in the Next Step for the World Economy
- Fenruary 2009, China and the US - Fighting on the Edge of a Cliff
- March 2009, Economics and Power, the Loss of US Power
- March 2009, China, Gold and the $US
- April 2009, China as the World Economic Power?
- April 2009, The RMB as the Reserve Currency
- May 2009, China, the RMB and the $US
- July 2009, The RMB as the Reserve Currency - an Update
- September 2009, The Rise and Rise of China