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Friday, May 13, 2011

The Receding Chinese-American Economic Paradigm: Imbalances within Mutual Benefit

“For decades,” according to the Wall Street Journal, “plentiful Chinese labor kept down costs of a range of goods bought by Americans.” Then, roughly in 2010, the Chinese government began supporting higher wages to reduce labor unrest and boost domestic consumption while reducing reliance on exports. Partially as a result of this, the world saw higher prices for commodities in 2011; oil was another factor as protests in the Middle East increased political risk in the calculations of future supply (amid speculation). A shrinking workforce in China was also putting pressure on the labor cost. Even though relatively cheap labor was still in the interior of the country, higher transportation costs mitigated the cost advantage. The prevailing paradigm was showing cracks. To be sure, it certainly had them.

In that paradigm, inflation was “damped pretty dramatically in the U.S. because it exported work to China and other places at 20% or 30% of the cost,” Hal Sirkin of the Boston Consulting Group said. Imports into the U.S. from China had increased China’s foreign currency reserves to over $3 trillion in the first decade of the twenty-first century; two-thirds of the reserves were U.S. dollars. The Chinese government used some of those dollars to purchase U.S. Treasury bonds; those purchases in turn relieved pressure on U.S. interest rates to increase. The continued cheap credit made it more possible for American consumers to purchase Chinese imports. It was a marriage of Chinese workers and American consumers, with both governments happy to oversee the nuptials.

Although in some ways good for all parties, the positive feedback loop made it difficult for China and the U.S. to have balanced economies. China relied too much on exports—with a supportive yuan currency making them artificially cheap for Americans—while the U.S. was enabled to accumulate trillions in additional federal debt without much self-discipline.  Therefore, from the rising labor costs in China and the related emphasis on domestic consumption (and a slowing appreciating yuan), inflation in both China and U.S. could be expected. It is no coincidence that the price of gold was quite high as the paradigm began to shift.

As the paradigm began to shift, it could be expected that should the Chinese foreign currency reserves be reduced, less foreign demand of U.S. Treasury bonds could eventuate, which in turn would put pressure on U.S. interest rates to increase. The rates could increase anyway to thwart the import-led inflation even if there is not excessive money supply. In other words, it could be expected that the imbalances in the slipping paradigm would give rise to corresponding imbalances afterward.

It is perhaps all too easy for us to tolerate imbalances as long as there is an overall equilibrium. China’s increasing dollar reserves and the U.S. Government’s increasing debt could co-exist with a tacit agreement wherein both Chinese workers and American consumers would benefit. Mutual benefit is not, however, a sufficient justification for tolerating fundamental imbalances either within a country or in the global economy.  For a sustainable economic paradigm, mutual benefit is necessary but not sufficient; they system as well as its parts should be in balance. To insist on this amid mutual benefit requires self-discipline because part of the benefit is spent in the restoration and playing out of balance. It is thus perhaps not an accident that the paradigm of imbalances amid mutual benefit was dominant for decades; the system itself might tell us something about modernity and ourselves.


Shai Oster, “China’s Rising Wages Propel U.S. Prices,” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2011, p. A2.