The usual concern about the US-China balance of economic and political power is couched in terms of our relative international payments positions. We’ve run a large current account deficit in recent years (imports above exports); they still have – by some measures – the largest current account surplus (exports above imports) even seen in a major country. They accumulate foreign assets, i.e., claims on other countries, such as the US. We issue a great deal of debt that is bought by foreigners, including China.
There are some legitimate concerns in this framing of the problem - no country can increase its net foreign debt (relative to GDP) indefinitely without facing consequences. And the Obama administration, ever since the Geithner-Clinton flipflop on China’s exchange rate policy early in 2009, seems quite captivated by this way of thinking: Will they buy our debt? Can we control our budget deficit? What happens if China dumps its dollars?.
The reason real to worry about China, however, has very little to do with external balances, China’s dollar holdings, or even capital flows. It’s about productivity and rent-seeking. Continue reading