America Fiddles While China Surges

By Steve Clemons

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photo credit: Steve Clemons

I'm in China this week and have had limited internet access (and time) to post while bouncing between meetings and cities.  I'm here as a guest of the China-United States Exchange Foundation and traveling with a great group including MSNBC's Jonathan Alter; ThomsonReuters' new acquisition the kidnapping-defying David Rohde; National Public Radio's managing editor David Sweeney; and Daniel Gross, now at Yahoo Finance and author of one of the most fun and counter-intuitive books I have read on economic history, Pop! Why Bubbles are Great for the Economy

I personally think that the US has overdone its bubbles and is now paying a heavy price -- but Gross's book is still a stimulating and important take on innovation and how it works.

There are probably significant economic bubbles embedded in China's political economy -- I just can't find them.  Some argue that the entire country is a bubble, or a Ponzi scheme, that will collapse the moment China has a really bad year.  Very few of the people we have met here have been able to navigate the question of what happens if the great numbers we keep having recited to us about improved water quality, more good air days, surging levels of year on year economic performance, more patents issued, all in accordance with primary targets in the 11th 5-year plan.

China's bank reserve requirements are 21%.  These must be among the highest reserve levels in the world.  Housing prices are falling at the moment as the government is working to rein in speculators -- but the fall off is minor and it is not creating a cascading spiral downward as over-leveraged real estate holders dump holdings.  Most second, third, seventeenth homes bought by China's new rich, who the Chinese are beginning to call "the golden collars" are bought with cash full board -- no leverage. 

The odd thing as that many of these homes sit vacant as many Chinese who buy more homes as investments don't want to spoil the home with renters -- and when they sell, they want to sell them new.  The indifference to rents shows to some degree how under-leveraged some key sectors may be.

Carnegie Senior Fellow Michael Pettis has one of the best blogs in the China-watching business and his work would be good to troll through for those digging into the China bubble question.

My gut at the moment is that as the renminbi continues to rise, China will do what Japan did after the September 1985 Plaza Accord after which its currency significantly rose and begin to collateralize more of its assets and expand China-directed manufacturing capacity all around the world.  Japan experts Karel van Wolferen and R. Taggart Murphy provide some of the best late 1980s/early 1990s chronicles of Japan's global expansion fueled by a strong currency.  China's global diversification could make what Japan did look trifling.

It's a cliche of course, but China is big -- it has such huge scale and discipline that it can move its bulk impressively fast towards national objectives.

I have many friends who worry about America's ability to compete with China and are concerned about Chinese mercantilism.  I worry about these issues as well and have since the early 1990s.  Many are late to the worry box.

But what I find few Americans who poke at China want to answer is what would they do differently if they were driving the helm of China's economic machinery.  Chinese industrial policy, education policy, innovation policy, investment policy, trade policy, and more are models that the US could learn from, or remind itself about.

America simply doesn't tend to its interests in the nationally cohesive way that I see here in China -- where problems abound, and probably corruption.  The state probably makes too many of the decisions in China -- but still, China is moving and the US, in contrast, seems stupidly paralyzed.

If I see another industrial park in China with a basketball court sized model of the successful development of one of some eighty different national development zones, I feel like I want to push a pencil through my head.  It's all impressive, all looks successful -- but my frustration is not with hearing for the seventh time a routine script offered by the very nice hosts of these industrial, high tech, and software parks -- but in my own lament that one just doesn't see much of this anymore in the United States.  Maybe in Raleigh-Durham.  Perhaps in Rio Rancho and Wichita -- but very few places.

We visited Applied Materials' impressive solar panel and semiconductor equipment manufacturing R&D facility in Xian today (yes, where the terra cotta warriors hang out),  and a data point that just shows what a steep hill China has climbed -- and what a challenge faces the US in its renewable industries and jobs objectives -- is that approximately three years ago, China had about 5% of the global solar production capacity.  Today that figure is 50%.  And if one adds Taiwan, the figure is closer to 70%.

Three years.  This is Andy Grove/Gordon Moore fast -- and this is China's "government" moving that quickly in partnership with industry.

By contrast, the paralysis in Washington -- the inability to move a serious jobs or infrastructure plan not only in Obama's recent legislative effort but since he came into office -- assures that America is quickly forfeiting opportunities, growth, and its role as the cutting edge of the global economy to China.  America needs to wake up.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/america-fiddles-while-china-surges/247883/