By Jon Markman, MSN Money 7/17/2009 12:01 AM ET
Imagine becoming so successful at your job that you stack up $2 trillion in income, which you conservatively place in short-term U.S. Treasury bonds for safekeeping.
Now imagine that when you try to cash in those bonds to buy a few things for your kids, the clerk at the bank abruptly shuts her window and tells you to go away.
That is essentially the situation faced by China these days as it wonders whether its plan to manufacture goods for U.S. consumers over the past two decades in exchange for a pile of credit slips was really such a hot idea.
The answer is coming up as a big, fat "uh-oh" as the U.S. deficit and debt obligations balloon to levels never before contemplated, and Beijing is denied requests to buy U.S. and Australian mines and oil properties. And as Beijing leaders talk openly, if obliquely, about their angst, they are unsettling world credit, currency and stock markets, which don't know what to make of the idea that the world's largest Ponzi scheme might be coming to an abrupt end.
This is a good time to assess the chilling possibilities, as the resolution of this pending crisis will afflict investors, workers and business owners alike.
What's so Ponzi about the Chinese-U.S. relationship? Basically everything. Look at it this way:
After a currency debacle in 1998 left its economy in tatters, Beijing decided to radically restructure its financial relationship with the West. Policymakers pegged the value of China's currency to the dollar, which had the effect of keeping it artificially low.
The cheap renminbi made it irresistibly inexpensive for U.S. companies to manufacture goods in China, even after shipping costs. As more companies shifted their operations to China, the U.S. manufacturing base was hollowed out in the name of globalization and profitability. Americans who once enjoyed high-paying factory jobs moved on to lower-paying service jobs.
China didn't need much of anything made in America, so instead of buying cars from Detroit and furniture from North Carolina with its factory profits, it bought Treasury bills. The purchase of all those bills drove down U.S. interest rates. So as middle-class and blue-collar Americans saw their wages stagnate or decline, they discovered they could still keep their old lifestyles by borrowing.
Over the past decade, Americans were able to outspend their incomes by easily rolling their debts forward through serial home refinancing. The situation was never ideal, but it worked as long as the value of their collateral -- their homes -- kept rising.
As long as China kept buying Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Treasury credits, the scheme worked in a strange and beautiful way: Our driveways filled up with cars and boats, shopping malls spread out across the suburban landscape, and the retailer with the closest ties to China, Wal-Mart, became the United States' largest company.
Was that so bad? Well, now think about this in the context of a Ponzi scheme such as the one perpetrated by disgraced financier Bernie Madoff.
Madoff's clients for years thought they were rich because he sent them brokerage statements that said so. But that scheme worked only as long as new money kept coming in. When international money flows seized up last year and too many people wanted to redeem their accounts at once, Madoff's $50 billion game fell apart. Then his victims suddenly discovered that their brokerage statements were worthless pieces of paper. Madoff clients' households crashed, and now one-time millionaires are broke. The reality is that they were always broke; they just didn't know it yet.
The credit that has kept American families afloat for the past 10 years is similar to those Madoff-produced brokerage statements. The credit is good only so long as China keeps recycling funds through the Ponzi scheme. But if Beijing leaders ever decide that it's just too risky to own U.S. dollars and debt, then the system is going to come crashing down.
Of course, it is not really in China's interest to stop the scheme, even if it wanted to, because its own economy would likewise blow up. Satyajit Das, a credit derivatives expert in Australia, likens this to stepping on one of those land mines that are activated by the weight of a victim's body. As soon as the weight is lifted, the mine explodes, and the person's leg is blown off.
China is thus frozen in place, damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. It's a classic Catch-22. China's cache of U.S. bonds isn't worth anything unless the bonds are sold. But selling them on any kind of scale will gut their value.
"People need to realize that China doesn't actually have any real U.S. money," Das says. "Unless they can turn in their bonds and exchange them for something else, they're only paper assets. Yet if they try to exit the position, they'll destabilize the dollar, and the value of the rest of their assets will plunge. And that's not even their biggest problem. It's that they also need to keep buying Treasurys, or interest rates will go up and their capital losses will be terrible."
In short, Das says, Beijing thought it had discovered the perfect scheme for establishing independence from the West, yet it has instead made its dependence worse than ever. And he observes that one unspoken reason that China has gone whole-hog on its massive, $650 billion fiscal stimulus program -- creating more factory capacity in a country that is already reeling from overcapacity -- is that the effort gives it cover to stockpile copper, oil, iron ore and other hard assets that it considers to be better stores of value than dollars.
The long, unwinding road
Now here's why this affects all of us: China and the U.S. together built the most monstrous liquidity bubble in world history as each pursued what it believed to be logical self-interest without any regulator, such as a stern global central banker, telling them that they were on a path of mutually assured destruction.
Now it's reached the point where global capital markets will impose their own discipline. Because most money generated over the past decade was spent on consumption rather than investment -- it's as if Madoff's clients blew their fake money on chartering jets rather than buying real property as a store of wealth -- there are few new buyers of goods. This has killed U.S. retail sales, crushed employment, lifted the foreclosure rate, stymied homebuilders and undercut loan demand.
There are no good solutions. The Chinese need to open their markets and let their currency float on the open market, but they won't for political reasons. And the U.S. needs to either halt its runaway deficit spending so that the world is not even more flooded with our debt, or swallow its pride and issue Treasurys denominated in Chinese currency. That probably won't happen either. Which means there is only one solution left: a long, slow, boring, lonely, soul-crushing process of digging out from under the piles of debt that got us into this mess.
You might even say that the bursting of the credit Ponzi scheme has left us all in jail now with Madoff. Let's hope that our sentence is shorter than his.