October 30, 2014

Who Will Lend to Us if Thriftsville Needs to Start Squandering?

In the movie I.O.U.S.A., Warren Buffett affectionately labeled China “Thriftsville” in his parable about the dangers of the United States over-consuming and relying on foreign production and lending. The movie also introduced us to a young Chinese couple, who met each other while working in a light bulb factory. This couple boasts that "saving money is a Chinese tradition," and they save half of the $20-a-day they earn.

The problem is, in an economic downturn, increased saving can harm short-term economic activity. So, from the front page of the print edition of today’s Washington Post, we learn that China is apparently now pursuing more than half a trillion dollars in fiscal stimulus (emphasis added):

China on Sunday night announced an aggressive $586 billion economic stimulus package, the largest in the country’s history, at a time when it is struggling with increasing social unrest due to factory closings and rising unemployment.

In a wide-ranging plan that economists are comparing to the New Deal, the government said it would ease credit restrictions, expand social welfare services and launch an infrastructure spending program that would include the construction of new railways, roads and airports…

The stimulus funds, to be used through 2010, represent roughly 15 percent of China’s yearly GDP. China last year accounted for 27 percent of global growth, more than any other nation.

The head of China’s central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, said at the Brazil meeting that by increasing domestic consumption, China could help international markets.

Over the past three months, China's leaders have taken steps large and small to keep the economy stable. Among the more traditional measures are interest rate cuts, a lowering of bank reserve ratio requirements, export tax rebates and an abolition of a stamp tax on stock purchases. It has also embraced some less traditional moves, such as giving subsidies to rural residents to buy things like refrigerators and TV sets in an effort to increase domestic consumption.

The question this brings to my mind is: if “Thriftsville” is going to stop saving so much and start consuming more, then who will keep investing in U.S. Treasuries–i.e., lending money to “Squanderville”?

--Diane Lim Rogers, Chief Economist (post adapted from economistmom.com)