Finance Column » Your Money This Week » Does U.S. have the China syndrome?

Does U.S. have the China syndrome?

By Gregg Fields ·
Monday, November 15, 2010
Posted 9 am ET

It was hard to argue with the critics: It is a major currency of a major world power being manipulated, pure and simple.

And President Barack Obama led the charge at last week's G-20 meeting in South Korea, saying China "spends enormous amounts of money'' to keep the yuan depressed. The result is that Chinese goods are unfairly competitive in the world market, allowing Beijing to pile up a massive trade surplus.

"All of us need to avoid actions that perpetuate imbalances and give countries an undue advantage over one another,'' he said.

So there.

The only problem is the finance ministers at G-20 were criticizing Washington, not China. The Federal Reserve's QE2 plan to pump $600 billion into U.S. banks is going to drive down the dollar and distort international commerce patterns, they said.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble recently called the Fed's move "clueless." Perhaps it sounds nicer in the original "ohne Anhaltspunkt."

"It doesn't add up when the Americans accuse the Chinese of currency manipulation and then, with the help of their central bank's printing presses, artificially lower the value of the dollar," he said.

OK, that probably sounded harsh even in German. But other critics of QE2 included Brazil, China and South Africa. It was a lot like the World Cup soccer tournament, but with pinstriped players providing the kicks. And unfortunately, the U.S. did about as well this time, too.

Obama, in a pre-summit press conference, countered that the U.S. policy is different because it will stimulate the American economy and be "good for the world as a whole." Officially, the Fed's goal is to drive down long-term interest rates to get the economy moving. Any subsequent loss of global appetite for dollars is collateral damage.

It is hard to argue that China hasn't benefitted from currency manipulation. It recently passed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy, a feat made easier by Japan's long-running stagnation.

But cynics might argue that at least China has a weak currency because it wants one. With recession-ravaged, deficit-plagued America, it just turned out that way.

There's another important difference between China's weak currency and America's: It works for them, and not for us.

In theory, a weaker currency makes a country's products cheaper to buy abroad. That drives up exports, which leads to job creation. It happened in China.

But last week it was reported the U.S. trade deficit was a whopping $44 billion in September, says the Bureau of Economic Analysis. True, it's an improvement from August's $46.5 billion. But that's a bit like marveling that your head feels better once you cease hitting it with a hammer. The monthly deficit with China was $27.8 billion, virtually flat with the $28 billion of August. China won't let its currency float. Therefore, our trade deficit with them is unlikely to sink, low dollar or not.

For all Americans, currency levels are a big deal. For workers, it affects how much America can sell, and therefore produce. For consumers, it can dictate how much they can buy, and from whom.

This week, we will get fresh evidence of how much buying Americans are doing in this pre-holiday season. Today, October's retail sales get reported. Later in the week, we get the Conference Board's Leading Indicators, which will give us evidence of whether to believe recent signs of a rebound.

Plenty of people will be watching -- on Main Street, Wall Street, Washington and Beijing. You can bet your bottom dollar.

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