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Chimerica: Where is China-US relation headed?

Niall Ferguson coined the term Chimerica (China-America), and he analogizes the relationship between China and the US as a marriage on the brink between a frugal husband (China) and a spendthrift wife (US).

In the following stimulating discussion (part of Aspen Ideas Festival Series) on where this Chimerica relationship is headed, Niall Ferguson thinks such relationship is not sustainable and the US and China are on a collision course, just like the rivalry between Britain and Germany in the early 20th century. With China’s sheer size and being non-democratic, you would naturally think so.

Jim Fallows disagrees. With many years of on-the-ground experiences in China, he thinks the US and China relation is more like US-Britain, and China’s ambition to revive its previous glory as the world power does not necessarily lead to clashes between the two.

I would highly recommend this piece. And I would like to briefly share my thoughts: 1) A rising China is unavoidable and unstoppable; 2) Competition between countries is healthy, and it often spurs innovation and technological break-through; 3) The US needs to be fully prepared for a rising China and strategically position itself in the 21st century. In particular, the US should have a strategy in steering China into a democratic country, remaking a potential adversary into a strong ally.

(click on the graph to play the video;
skip the intro part and go directly to 4:30).

Bob Shiller comments on recent housing data

Roach starting to worry about China

Stephen Roach is chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia.

I've been an optimist on China. But I'm starting to worry

By Stephen Roach

On the surface, China appears to be leading the world from recession to recovery. After coming to a virtual standstill in late 2008, at least as measured quarter-to-quarter, economic growth accelerated sharply in spring 2009.

A back-of-the envelope calculation suggests China may have accounted for as much as 2 percentage points of annualised growth in inflation-adjusted world output in the second quarter of 2009. With contractions moderating elsewhere, China's rebound may have been enough in and of itself to allow global gross domestic product to eke out a small positive gain for the first time since last summer.

That's the good news. The bad news is that China's recent growth spurt comes at a steep price. Fearful that its recent economic short- fall would deepen, Chinese policymakers have opted for quantity over quality in setting macro-strategy, the centrepiece of which is an enormous surge in infrastructure spending funded by a burst of bank lending.

Sure, developing nations always need more infrastructure. But China has taken this to extremes. Infrastructure expenditure (including Sichuan earthquake reconstruction) accounts for fully 72 per cent of China's recently enacted Rmb4,000bn ($585bn) stimulus. The government urged the banks to step up and fund the package. And they did. In the first six months of 2009, bank loans totalled Rmb7,400bn – three times the pace in the first half of 2008 and the strongest six-month lending surge on record.

This outsized bank-directed investment stimulus leaves little doubt as to how bad it was in China in late 2008 and early 2009. An unprecedented external demand shock, stemming from rare synchronous recessions in the developed world, devastated the export-led Chinese growth machine. That triggered sackings of more than 20m migrant workers in export-intensive Guangdong province. Long fixated on social stability, Beijing moved to arrest this deterioration. The government was determined to do whatever it took to restore rapid growth.

Yet there can be no avoiding the destabilizing consequences of these actions. Surging investment accounted for an unprecedented 88 per cent of Chinese GDP growth in the first half of 2009 – double the average contribution of 43 per cent over the past decade. At the same time, the quality of Chinese bank lending most assuredly suffered from the rash of credit disbursements in the first half of this year – a trend that could sow the seeds for a new wave of non-performing bank loans. Just this week, Chinese regulators told banks that new loans must be used to bolster the real economy and not for speculation in equities and real estate.

A little over two years ago, premier Wen Jiabao warned of a Chinese economy that was becoming increasingly "unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and ultimately unsustainable". Prescient words. Yet rather than act on those concerns by implementing a pro-consumption rebalancing, growth-hungry China was seduced by the boom in global trade and upped the ante on its most unbalanced sectors. By 2007, investment and exports accounted for about 80 per cent of Chinese GDP. And now, in the face of a severe global recession, China has compounded the very problems the premier warned of: aiming a massive liquidity-driven stimulus at its most unbalanced sector.

This is not a sustainable outcome for any economy – or sustainable support for the world economy. China must redirect economic growth towards internal private consumption. This may require a compromise on the quantity dimension of its growth outcome. But to the extent that leads to improved quality in the Chinese economy, a short-term growth sacrifice is well worth the effort.

Unlike most, I have been a steadfast optimist on China. Yet I am starting to worry. A macro strategy that exacerbates worrying imbalances is ultimately a recipe for failure. In many respects, that's what the global crisis and recession of 2008-09 are all about. China will not get special dispensation from the most critical lesson of this post-crisis era.

Nudge and smart regulation

How to make our regulations smarter and more intelligent by utilizing psychology to shape human behaviors (source: Intelligent Investor of WSJ):

Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Wall Street to the torture rack. Barack Obama is sending Wall Street to the psychology lab.

A key component of President Obama's financial-reform package is its proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would apply findings from the science of human behavior to ensure "transparency, simplicity, fairness, and access" for borrowers, savers and other financial consumers.

That could make it a lot harder for a part-time worker to end up with an exploding mortgage that eats all her take-home pay. It might even mean that regulators will finally pay attention to the visual presentation of financial data — color, graphics and other factors that exert powerful sway over your decisions.

regulation based on human nature

The proposal is an outgrowth of "Nudge," the brilliant book published last year by two University of Chicago scholars, economist Richard H. Thaler and law professor Cass R. Sunstein. A longtime friend of President Obama, Prof. Sunstein has been nominated to head the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a job often described as "the regulation czar."

In my view, a behavioral approach is decades overdue. Financial regulations always have been written mainly by lawyers and legislators — then promptly shot full of holes by promoters who understand how real human beings think and behave.

Lawyers think that the mere disclosure of risks and conflicts of interest provides the information that investors or consumers need. That is a fantasy. Faced with 47 pages' worth of "Risk Factors," investors come away with a warm glow of safety; risks that seem hard to understand appear unlikely to happen, and people who provide you with lots of detail seem likely to be honest.

To inform anyone, information has to be accessible. The central idea in "Nudge" is what Profs. Thaler and Sunstein call "choice architecture" — the context, format and framing of how decisions are presented to consumers. You will eat more nuts from a big bowl than from a small bowl. You will choose surgery if you are told it offers a 90% chance of survival; you will reject it if you are told there is a 10% chance it will kill you. The same people who would skip investing in a 401(k) if they had to "opt in" to the plan will participate if they have to "opt out" in order to skip it.

Prof. Sunstein, who is awaiting Senate confirmation in his post, declined to be interviewed. Cautioning that he can't speak for the Obama administration or Prof. Sunstein, Prof. Thaler discussed the new regulatory model. "The standard beer can is 12 ounces," he said. "That makes it pretty easy to compare beer prices. So now consider mortgages. It's not that you regulate the interest rates or the fees. But one way to make shopping easier is to make comparing the products simpler."

Thus, suggested Prof. Thaler, every bank or mortgage broker would have to offer two "safe-harbor" products with "standard terms that are easy to understand": a 30-year fixed mortgage with no points or prepayment penalties, and a five-year adjustable-rate mortgage. The market would set the interest rates. "By having these generic, simple mortgages," said Prof. Thaler, "you make everything else comparable."

Banks and mortgage brokers would remain free to offer more complex kinds of loans. However, added Prof. Thaler, "If the broker sells you a teaser-rate mortgage that you can't possibly afford once it resets, then as Ricky Ricardo used to say, he's got some 'splainin' to do" — including greater potential penalties from regulators. Mutual funds, 401(k)s and brokerage accounts wouldn't be regulated by the new agency but might well be influenced by its rules.

The proposal is about making regulation intelligent, not intrusive, said Eric Johnson, an expert on decision-making who teaches at Columbia Business School. "If you really do want a complicated, high-cost, high-risk mutual fund, you'll still be able to get it. But making sure that at least one option is not a disaster gives people an anchor."

Regulation that recognizes the limits of human rationality is an idea whose time has come. Like any good psychology lab, the proposed new agency will gather reams of data on how real people actually behave and adjust its rules accordingly, in real time. Of course, the financial industry will adjust its own behavior, trying to outsmart the new rules as fast as they are printed. But the war between the regulators and the regulated might finally be based on a realistic view of human nature, not fantasy.


Country music got dressed up by economic theories and John Maynard Keynes.

Unemployment and Economic Recovery

Unemployment rate is a lagging economic indicator and it peaks long after recession ends. So how can a lagging indicator affect the burgeoning recovery? You may ask.

This short piece from WSJ takes on this traditional view that unemployment does not matter, and analyzes why in this recession unemployment will become the decisive factor to the path of the US recovery.

Threat of Unemployment

Are markets taking too rosy a view of unemployment? Unemployment is usually seen as a lagging rather than leading economic indicator: In the last two U.S. downturns, firms continued shedding jobs for months after the recession was officially over. Typically, companies only start hiring in earnest once a recovery is clearly under way. But this time, unemployment may play a bigger role in determining the timing and shape of recovery.

True, the markets are currently betting the old orthodoxy still holds sway. Unemployment has climbed quickly. The U.S. rate hit 9.5% in June, higher than any point since 1983, and up from 5.6% a year earlier, one of the steepest annual rises on record. In the euro zone, May’s 9.5% unemployment rate was the highest in 10 years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development forecasts rates of 10% in the U.S. and more than 12% in the euro zone in 2010. But that has not stopped equity markets from rallying strongly, amid growing hopes of a recovery this year.

That’s partly because job losses and other cost cuts have provided a cushion for corporate profits: 82% of the S&P 500 companies to report so far have beaten second-quarter earnings expectations. The snag is that only 50% have beaten sales targets, as Deutsche Bank points out. For the moment, earnings are only being held up by costs shrinking faster than revenue. For a true recovery, sales need to start growing too. Rising unemployment may make that harder to achieve.

First, the flipside of improved corporate profits is real financial and consumer pain. U.S. credit card bad debt, for example, is rising faster than unemployment. Annualized write-offs of securitized credit card debt hit a record 10.8% in June, according to Moody’s. The agency expects that to rise to 12% to 13% in mid-2010. In Europe, Fitch’s U.K. credit card charge-off index hit a record high of 9% in April. Historically, investors have assumed that a one percentage point increase in unemployment will lead to a one percentage point increase in bad credit card debt. But the pace of job losses and levels of debt means nobody is confident previous correlations will hold. Similarly, rising unemployment could also hit house prices again, causing further turmoil for mortgage-backed securities.

Meanwhile, high unemployment is also likely to weigh on consumer sentiment. Nearly 60% of U.S. consumers expect high unemployment to persist over the next several years, the University of Michigan reported Friday. That could shape behavior: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned last week that unemployment could weigh on consumer spending. Continued pressure on sales could be a further impetus for companies to cut costs and jobs, leading to more losses on consumer debt.

Financial Times also has a nice video analysis on that the current earnings growth was driven by aggressive cost cutting, rather than sales. Consumer demand still remains every weak.

(click on the graph to play video; source: FT)

Feldstein warns of ‘double-dip’ recession

Marty Feldstain says it's likely the economy will be dragged down again in the fourth quarter.  He made a very good point that recovery from inventory buildup does not necessarily mean consumer demand will be bouncing back.  In other words, after a huge debt bubble, there is simply not enough demand out there to sustain the recovery.

Link to video (source: Bloomberg)

Blinder: The economy has hit bottom

There are a few egg-heads Fed commentators worth listening to, Alan Blinder is one of them.  In this piece, Alan Blinder explains how mechanically the economy could see a positive GDP growth in coming quarters, and why hitting the recession bottom can be good news and bad news.

How’s the economy, you ask? I have the proverbial good news and bad news, but in this case, they’re exactly the same: The U.S. economy appears to be hitting bottom.

First, the good news. Right now, it looks like second-quarter GDP growth will come in only slightly negative, and third-quarter growth will finally turn positive. Compared to the catastrophic decline we recently experienced—with GDP dropping at roughly a 6% annual rate in the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year—that would be a gigantic improvement.

Furthermore, there is a reasonable chance—not a certainty, mind you, but a reasonable chance—that the second half of 2009 will surprise us on the upside. (Can anyone remember what an upside surprise feels like?) Three-percent growth is eminently doable. Four percent is even possible. Surprised? How, with all our economic travails, could we possibly mount such a boom? The answer is that this seemingly high growth scenario isn’t a boom at all. Rather, it follows directly from the arithmetic of hitting bottom.

Bear with me for two paragraphs while I do some numbers. In recent quarters, several critical components of GDP have declined at truly astounding annual rates—like minus 30% and minus 40%. You know the culprits: housing, automobiles and business investment. (Also inventories, about which more later.) Eventually, those huge negative numbers must turn into (at least) zeroes. Notice that the move to zero doesn’t constitute a boom, not even a dead cat bounce, but merely the cessation of catastrophic decline. In fact, hitting zero growth and staying there would be a disaster scenario. We’ll almost certainly do better.

But watch what happens when—and remember, it’s when not if—the arithmetic of bottoming out takes hold. Housing, which is down to 2.6% of GDP, will serve as an example. In the first quarter, spending on new homes declined at a stunning 39% annual rate. If that minus 39% number turned into a zero in a single quarter, that change alone would add a full percentage point to that quarter’s GDP growth (because 2.6% of 39% is about 1%). If the move to zero were to happen over two quarters, it would add about a half point to each. Many people think housing may in fact bottom out in the third or fourth quarter. Autos may already have passed their low point. And business investment will follow suit.

Now back to inventories. Recent quarters have seen an almost unprecedented liquidation of inventory stocks, which means that American businesses were producing even less than the paltry amounts they were selling. That, too, must come to an end. As inventory change turns from a large negative number into just zero, GDP will get another a big boost.

Now the key point: None of these events are probabilities; they are all certainties. The only issue is timing, about which we can only guess. But if several of these GDP components happen to bottom out at roughly the same time, we could be in for a big quarter or two.

Feeling a little better? There’s more.

Remember the fiscal stimulus that everyone seems to be complaining about? One of the critics’ complaints is that little of the stimulus money has been spent to date. OK. But that means that most of the spending is in our future.

And remember all those interest-rate cuts the Federal Reserve engineered in 2008, in a futile effort to stem the slide? The Fed’s efforts were futile largely because widening risk and liquidity spreads negated any impacts on the interest rates real people and real businesses pay to borrow. Now those spreads are narrowing, which allows the Fed’s rate cuts to start showing through to consumer loan rates, business loan rates, corporate bond rates, and the like. In short, monetary stimulus is in the pipeline—a pipeline that was formerly blocked.

So why, then, is everyone feeling so blue? That brings me to the bad news: The U.S. economy is hitting bottom.

If things feel terrible to you, you’re not hallucinating. Economic conditions are dreadful at the bottom of a deep recession. Jobs are scarce. Layoffs abound. Businesses scramble for penurious customers. Companies go bankrupt. Banks suffer loan losses. Tax receipts plunge, ballooning government budget deficits. All this and more is happening right now, in what looks to be this country’s worst recession since 1938. At such a deep bottom, few people have reason to smile. (Bankruptcy lawyers maybe?)

What’s more, GDP is not terribly meaningful to most people. Jobs are—but they will take longer, maybe much longer, to revive. The last two recessions, while shallow, illustrated painfully that job growth may not resume for months after GDP bottoms out. And the unemployment rate won’t fall until job growth rises “above trend” (say, 130,000 net new jobs per month). That’s a long way from where we are today. So, even though the economy may be making a GDP bottom about now, the unemployment rate will probably keep rising for months—which is bad news for most Americans.

One last, obvious, but unhappy, point: The bottom of a deep recession leaves the nation in a deep hole. Our economy now has massive unemployment and vast swaths of unused industrial capacity. It will take years of strong growth to return to full employment.

After the last big recession bottomed out at the end of 1982, the U.S. economy rebounded sharply, with a remarkable six-quarter spurt in which annual GDP growth averaged 7.7%. That spurt induced President Ronald Reagan, running for reelection in 1984, to declare “It’s morning again in America.” Nobody thinks we can repeat that today, hampered as we are by a damaged financial system, decimated household wealth, rising foreclosures, and traumatized consumers who have suddenly learned the virtues of thrift.

So, yes, the good news is also the bad news. The economy is hitting bottom, but it’s a long, uphill climb to get out.

Mr. Blinder, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University and vice chairman of the Promontory Interfinancial Network, is a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.