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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

UK, US Treasury securities, and blogs (continued)

Well, I've got some sort of response from Iain Dale's commentators, starting with an ad hominem accusation of being emotionally needy (scared, more like!).

Here's my main argument, however inexpertly expressed:

Over the last 12 months, 10 countries have reduced their loans to the US by a combined total of $72 billion; we've increased our commitment by $112 billion, moving us from 10th place to 3rd place in the list of America's creditors. And our own finances aren't that good, either.

America is in hock to foreigners to the tune of 2.18 trillion dollars and rising. Effectively, they're running up a very big credit card bill to maintain domestic living standards. The US Comptroller General has very recently commented that this indebtedness could be used against the US by unfriendly foreign powers.

Our greatly increased support for America's finances is at the cost of some risk to ourselves, because if the borrowing spree continues unabated, we may find we get repaid in dollars that are worth far less than they are today. Can we afford to keep bailing out a spendthrift?

The borrowing is a powerful economic stimulus to China which, despite its relative poverty, is the second biggest creditor to the US. By sending the money back to America in the form of loans (purchase of US Treasury bonds), they avoid having their own currency appreciate. So their wage rates remain fantastically low and they continue to take business and jobs from the West - us included. Think of the transfer of the Swan Hunter shipyard to south India, or the purchase of Rover by China (don't tell me they're desperate to create long-term employment in Birmingham, when the average per capita wage in China is less than £1,000 per year). We're seeing a shift from higher-paid industrial work to lower-paid service jobs - perhaps the economic profile and geographical distribution of the readership of this blog means that it isn't obvious to them. China and others are hoovering up world resources in the dash to industrialise, right down to our iron manhole covers. James Kynge's "China shakes the world" is easy to read and very enlightening about what's going on.

Japan, America's greatest creditor, also buys US bonds to keep excess money out of its own system, so its interest rates are low, so the yen stays low and protects its well-established export markets. Also, a lot of money powering the world's stockmarkets is cheap money borrowed from Japan and invested elsewhere - the so-called "carry trade". All right if it goes on forever - but it can't. You cannot live for the rest of your life on borrowed money.

If currencies were responsibly managed, the trade deficit would cause the US to start to run short of cash, US wages would go down and exports back up, and trade would eventually (if painfully) come back into balance. But the Americans - and others, including ourselves again - respond by increasing the money supply (mostly through bank lending - up another 13% this year on both sides the Atlantic), which leads to price inflation, hence the rise in house prices and the stock markets. But borrowed money has to be repaid someday and then the tide will go out - but this time, we'll be left without much industrial capacity.

There's a fear that to prevent a 3os-style Depression, governments will print money even faster, but this leads to hyperinflation and eventually no one wants the currency at all (cf. Germany in 1923). So we could well have both a slump and high inflation. It may sound dull and technical, but then money is boring - until you haven't got any.

An American Congressional committee recently grilled the chairman of the Federal Reserve (like our Bank of England) and at least one Congressman admitted he realized he didn't understand inflation; the only one who seemed to was Ron Paul, who said that if we can make a living by printing money, we should all quit our jobs and do that. Most of Ron Paul's own investments are in gold and silver; the world's richest investor, Warren Buffett, has been sitting on many billions of dollars of cash for a long time and has recently disclosed that he's hedged by buying into a foreign currency, to protect against financial loss from a falling dollar.

If the value of the dollar (and possibly the pound) starts to collapse through overproduction, we really will notice - it's not just going to be bargain fares to Disneyworld. Americans - rich, expert ones, who manage big funds - are sounding the warnings loudly, clearly and angrily.

The collapse hasn't happened yet, partly because the dollar is the world's standard trading currency. This is changing; already, Iran is demanding payment from Japan in yen, not US dollars. When more countries start to impose similar conditions, the demand for the dollar will drop significantly, and so will its exchange value. China is beginning to de-link from the dollar, in favour of a wider basket of currencies; meanwhile, it's widened the range within which its currency (the renminbi, or Chinese yuan) can move against the dollar. They're not in hurry to appreciate their money, for reasons of international industrial market share; but that's the way the pressure is building.

Although our economy is much smaller than America's, we have (to some extent) similar problems ourselves. Yet here we are, lending money to our bigger cousin. I don't think we can sub him indefinitely, and I don't think we have begun to address the question of our own economic future. Without that, there'll be lots more hoodies to hug.

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