China Doesn’t Have a “Nuclear Option”
A global trade war is now in full swing. Many nations are involved, but the chief antagonists are the U.S. and China.
China set up the conditions for a trade war by unfair dumping of steel on world markets and the theft of over $1 trillion of U.S. intellectual property. President Trump fired the first shots with tariffs on steel, aluminum, solar panels and dishwashers. China retaliated with its own tariffs.
Trump answered back with further tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports. China then imposed more tariffs on U.S. goods to match Trump’s $50 billion. Trump raised the ante another $100 billion like a poker player with a good hand and lots of chips.
At this stage, China can’t keep going with tariffs.
They only import about $150 billion of U.S. exports. At the rate they’re going, they’ll run out of goods to impose tariffs on. Trump can keep going because the U.S. imports so much more from China than they buy from us.
But the Chinese are obsessed with not losing face. Chinese President Xi has just been named in effect dictator for life. He doesn’t want to start out his new dictatorial regime by backing down from a stare-fest with Donald Trump. So he needs another option.
For China to keep fighting, they need an asymmetric response; they need to fight the trade war with something other than tariffs.
China holds over $1.2 trillion of U.S. Treasury securities. Some analysts say China can dump those Treasuries on world markets and drive up U.S. interest rates. This will also drive up mortgage rates, damage the U.S. housing market, and possibly drive the U.S. economy into a recession. Analysts call this China’s “nuclear option” when it comes to fighting a financial war with Trump.
There’s only one problem.
The nuclear option is a dud. If China did sell some of their Treasuries, they would hurt themselves because any increase in interest rates would reduce the market value of what they have left.
Also, there are plenty of buyers around if China became a seller. Those Treasuries would be bought up by U.S. banks, or even the Fed itself. If China pursued an extreme version of this Treasury dumping, the U.S. President could stop it with a single phone call to the Treasury.
That’s because the U.S. controls the digital ledger that records ownership of all Treasury securities. We could simply freeze the Chinese bond accounts in place and that would be the end of that. So, don’t worry when you hear about China dumping U.S. Treasuries. China is stuck with them. It has no nuclear option in the Treasury market.
But if you can’t win a trade war, you can try winning a currency war instead…
I just argued that China’s “nuclear option” in the trade wars is a dud. But, that does not mean China is out of bullets in a financial war. China cannot impose as many tariffs as Trump because they don’t buy as much from us as we buy from them.
China cannot dump Treasuries because there are plenty of buyers and the president could stop the dumping by freezing China’s accounts if things got out of hand in the Treasury market. But China could use a real nuclear option to counteract the trade war by fighting a currency war.
If Trump imposes 25% tariffs on Chinese goods, China could simply devalue their currency by 25%. That would make Chinese goods cheaper for U.S. buyers by the same amount as the tariff. The net effect on price would be unchanged and Americans could keep buying Chinese goods at the same price in dollars.
The impact of such a massive devaluation would not be limited to the trade war. A cheaper yuan exports deflation from China to the U.S. and makes it harder for the Fed to meet its inflation target.
Also, the last two times China tried to devalue its currency, August 2015 and December 2015, U.S. stock markets crashed by over 11% in a matter of a few weeks. So, if the trade war escalates as I expect, don’t worry about China dumping Treasuries or imposing tariffs. Watch the currency. That’s where China will strike back. When they do, U.S. stock markets will be the first victims.
Maybe you think that’s unlikely because it would be such an extreme reaction by China. But you have to put yourself in the shoes of China’s leadership.
These aren’t academic issues to China’s leaders. They go to the heart of the government’s very legitimacy.
China’s economy is not just about providing jobs, goods and services. It is about regime survival for a Chinese Communist Party that faces an existential crisis if it fails to deliver. The overriding imperative of the Chinese leadership is to avoid societal unrest.
If China encounters a financial crisis, Xi could quickly lose what the Chinese call, “The Mandate of Heaven.” That’s a term that describes the intangible goodwill and popular support needed by emperors to rule China for the past 3,000 years.
If The Mandate of Heaven is lost, a ruler can fall quickly.
Up to half of China’s investment is a complete waste. It does produce jobs and utilize inputs like cement, steel, copper and glass. But the finished product, whether a city, train station or sports arena, is often a white elephant that will remain unused.
Chinese growth has been reported in recent years as 6.5–10% but is actually closer to 5% or lower once an adjustment is made for the waste. The Chinese landscape is littered with “ghost cities” that have resulted from China’s wasted investment and flawed development model.
What’s worse is that these white elephants are being financed with debt that can never be repaid. And no allowance has been made for the maintenance that will be needed to keep these white elephants in usable form if demand does rise in the future, which is doubtful.
Essentially, China is on the horns of a dilemma with no good way out. On the one hand, China has driven growth for the past eight years with excessive credit, wasted infrastructure investment and Ponzi schemes.
The Chinese leadership knows this, but they had to keep the growth machine in high gear to create jobs for millions of migrants coming from the countryside to the city and to maintain jobs for the millions more already in the cities.
The two ways to get rid of debt are deflation (which results in write-offs, bankruptcies and unemployment) or inflation (which results in theft of purchasing power, similar to a tax increase).
Both alternatives are unacceptable to the Communists because they lack the political legitimacy to endure either unemployment or inflation. Either policy would cause social unrest and unleash revolutionary potential.
China’s internal contradictions are catching up with it. China has to confront an insolvent banking system, a real estate bubble, and a $1 trillion wealth management product Ponzi scheme that is starting to fall apart.
A much weaker yuan would give China some policy space in terms of using its reserves to paper over some of these problems.
A maxi-devaluation of their currency is probably the best way to avoid the social unrest that terrifies China.
When that happens, possibly later this year in response to Trump’s trade war, the effects will not be confined to China. A shock yuan maxi-devaluation will be the shot heard round the world as it was in August and December 2015 (both times, U.S. stocks fell over 10% in a matter of weeks).
China doesn’t have a trade war nuclear option. But it does have one very powerful weapon.
Do you have your gold yet?
for The Daily Reckoning