Tremors in the bond market? What happens when tremors turn into an earthquake? Cannot answer that? If you cannot, you have some homework to do. Hint: who is the buyer of last resort of all government bonds if acceptable bids are not present? What happens when this entity is forced to buy the bonds nobody else wants? Where do they get the money to buy the bonds with? Ahhh, more homework!
Recently, the U.S. Treasury Department released data showing an 11% decline in official Chinese holdings of U.S. government bonds during the past year.
The Chinese government isn’t adding to its U.S. bond position. Nor is it rolling over its previous purchases. Instead, between September 2009–June 2010, Chinese holdings of U.S. bonds fell from $938.1 billion to $843.7. That’s a drop of over $94 billion over nine months.
The Chinese are backing away from U.S. debt. They’re reducing their exposure to the U.S. dollar, and by extension their vulnerability to a declining U.S. economy.
What’s going on? Is the decline in Chinese holdings of U.S. bonds strictly an economic assessment? Or is there something else afoot? What factions are driving this decision? And what does all of this mean for precious metals?
China’s Growing Confidence, and U.S. Decline
First let’s note how, in recent years, China has exhibited a newfound measure of international confidence, if not swagger. It’s easy to understand why.
China’s leaders see that the U.S. suffers from a weak economy, hampered by chronic overspending on consumption and underinvestment in new capital. In the wake of the global financial crisis of the past few years, Chinese leaders have concluded that U.S.-style democracy and Wall Street-style capitalism are discredited.
In other words, to use a Chinese term, the U.S. is a “sunset power.” China, on the other hand, sees itself as a “sunrise power.” The Chinese are going places in this world. The Chinese have developed a different approach to development than other nations, and they have the economic statistics to back it up.
The Chinese are not afraid to trumpet their success, either. Recently, for example, the German magazine Der Spiegel noted, “All around the world, from Africa to Asia to South America, Beijing is trying to tout its model of authoritarian state capitalism as the better alternative.”
The Chinese Military Influence
One way to look at things is that we’re watching historical waves unfold. China is on the rise, while U.S. power and influence wanes. But in a nation and culture as complex as that of China, it’s also useful to take a close look at how and why things happen.
One key source of influence within China is a hard-core military faction. The Chinese military offers a viewpoint that almost always holds sway on issues of supreme national importance. Such issues definitely include areas of so-called “core Chinese interests” that cover Taiwan and Tibet, as well as the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea.
It’s common knowledge, for example, that Chinese military advisers are incensed over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. No amount of U.S. diplomacy ever is enough to smooth the troubled waters that divide mainland China from Taiwan. Indeed, the Chinese view their relations with Taiwan as an “internal matter” and consider most U.S. activities that touch on that relationship as “officious meddling.”
In a new development this summer, the Chinese military expressed outrage over joint U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers in the Yellow Sea.
That is, the U.S. and South Korea announced plans to conduct military exercises in the waters west of South Korea where a South Korean warship was sunk — apparently by a North Korean torpedo — in March of this year. The Chinese military, in turn, went ballistic (so to speak).
“Not in the Fundamental Interest”
One recent article on the state-run Xinhua news website warned the U.S. not to move the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington into the Yellow Sea. The author of the article took care in his choice of words, but left no room for doubt about the Chinese position:
“Offending Chinese people is not in the fundamental interest of the U.S. Any activity aimed at pushing a country with a 1.3-billion populace with enormous potential would be inadvisable.”
On another news site, People’s Liberation Army Daily, Rear Admiral Yang Yi, former head of strategic studies at the Peoples’ Liberation Army’s National Defense University, was no less forceful, stating:
“On the one hand, [the U.S.] wants China to play a role in regional security issues. On the other hand, it is engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement of China and constantly challenging China’s core interests.”
Adm. Yang believes that the U.S. threatens China. Earlier this year, he said:
“The U.S. is the only country capable of threatening China’s national security interests in an all-round way… Japan has no such ability, while Russia has no such motivation and India is more worried about China.”
“Pay a Costly Price”
In a recent editorial, Adm. Yang expressed dismay over U.S. policies, stating, “Rarely has there been such wavering and chaos in U.S. policy toward China.” Adm. Yang expanded the point in another article in China Daily, China’s main English-language newspaper: “Washington will inevitably pay a costly price for its muddled decision.”
Not to be outdone — or perhaps simply to offer a consistent message — Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, deputy secretary-general of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences, added his authority to the discussion. In a scathing editorial in the Chinese newspaper Global Times, Gen. Luo said that moving the U.S.S. George Washington into the Yellow Sea was a “deliberate provocation” toward China and that the U.S. should “think twice about the maneuver.”
When the Debtor Challenges the Creditor
Gen. Luo followed up with this comment: “Imagine what the consequences will be if China’s biggest debtor nation challenges its creditor nation.” China is the “world’s largest market,” and “offending China means losing, or at least decreasing, market share.”
I don’t think we have to “imagine” the consequences at all. I believe we just have to look at the decline in Chinese holdings of U.S. bonds — or “decreasing market share,” like the man said.
Thus, I believe that in addition to the Chinese economic concerns about the future of the U.S. economy and U.S. dollar, the Chinese military is also pushing its leadership to back away from holding U.S. dollars. There’s a component of military strategy to the decline in Chinese bond holdings.
What Are the Implications?
Then next question is if the Chinese are NOT buying U.S. bonds, then who IS buying the bonds?
My hunch is that it’s the U.S. Federal Reserve. That is, the Fed is covering China’s retreat from the dollar. For reasons both economic and military, China is gradually exiting its dollar position. The Fed is allowing this to happen quietly, without causing a dollar panic.
Meanwhile, the consequence is that the Fed is monetizing the U.S. national debt. Over the long term, this can only lead to the further decline of the U.S currency. Looking out over the medium and long terms, it can only mean higher prices for precious metals.
September 15, 2010