Paul Ryan's 40 year detox: America can't rely on China
Amidst the hyperbole, the bigger picture of America's debt crisis is being missed. Funnily enough, it involves China quite a bit.
The reaction of some to the release of the Path to Prosperity budget last week by Representative Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, was incandescent fury.
A New York Times editorial painted a picture of America under the Ryan budget as
“one where the rich pay less in taxes than the unfairly low rates they pay now, while programs for the poor — including Medicaid and food stamps — are slashed and thrown to the whims of individual states. Where older Americans no longer have a guarantee that Medicare will pay for their health needs. Where lack of health insurance is rampant, preschool is unaffordable, and environmental and financial regulation are severely weakened”
The Washington Post exhumed Dickens and Orwell on the way to saying
“Ryan would cut $770 billion over 10 years from Medicaid and other health programs for the poor, compared with President Obama’s budget. He takes an additional $205 billion from Medicare, $1.6 trillion from the Obama health-care legislation”
According to The New Republic the budget
“would take health insurance away from tens of millions of people, while effectively eliminating the federal government except for entitlements and defense spending”
The Huffington Post quoted one Eddie Vale, a spokesman from pressure group Protect Your Care, as saying “A Republican budget to end Medicare is a Republican budget to end Medicare, no matter what you call it”
What’s most striking about all this is what’s missing. Mr Vale and the others quoted haven’t asked themselves the crucial question about Medicare and food stamps and all the rest; will the Chinese be happy to keep paying for it all?
The United States government borrowed $4 billion today. It borrowed $4 billion yesterday and it will borrow $4 billion again tomorrow and so on. Federal government debt, which was rising by about $625 billion a year under George W Bush, is, under President Obama, rising at $1 trillion a year. According to official figures in December Federal government debt passed 100% of GDP.
In National Review Mark Steyn does an excellent job of conveying the full scale of this explosion of debt
“The 2011 budget deficit, for example, is about the size of the entire Russian economy. By 2010, the Obama administration was issuing about a hundred billion dollars of treasury bonds every month — or, to put it another way, Washington is dependent on the bond markets being willing to absorb an increase of U.S. debt equivalent to the GDP of Canada or India — every year”
And what is the Ryan budget, cause of such wailing and gnashing of teeth, proposing to do about this financial catastrophe? Under what the New York Times called “the most extreme budget plan passed by a house of Congress in modern times” Ryan doesn’t actually propose to balance the Federal budget for another 40 years.
So far America has gotten by through buying consumer goods from China and sending dollars in return. The Chinese then effectively loan these dollars back to America by buying Federal government debt, Treasury bonds. The Federal government then spends the receipts from these Treasury bond sales on Medicare and food stamps and all the rest. This is how the Federal government pays its way and it is why China is the world’s largest owner of US government debt with holdings of $1.148 trillion.
Why have the Chinese been so willing for so long to fund the consumption of Americans who’s per capita GDP is nearly six times higher than theirs?
One reason is geostrategic. America will not be able to confront the emergent power of China over Taiwan or anything else if the US government has to borrow the money from the Chinese to do so.
Another is connected to the economy and domestic politics. It has long been an article of faith among China watchers that China’s economy needed growth of 8% a year to guarantee jobs for the millions of young people entering the workforce every year, failure would lead to political unrest. If the Chinese government could only guarantee these jobs in factories producing goods for sale in the US by loaning the US the money to buy them, so be it.
Either way the entire edifice of the United States government is dependent on a line of credit from China and elsewhere. In total one third of US government debt, $5 trillion, is held overseas. With a bit of help from the Quantitative Easing of the Federal Reserve this vast market for Federal government debt has kept bond yields historically low while debt has ballooned. The Federal government is dependent upon the continuation of this line of credit for its own continuation.
But there are signs that the willingness of poor Chinese to keep lending money to rich Americans is coming to an end. Last year the previously insatiable Chinese reduced their holdings of US government debt for the first time since records began in 2001. Not only China is suffering indigestion at the amount of US government debt it is being asked to swallow. Russia and India have drastically reduced their holdings.
The reason is obvious. As a borrower, like America, piles debt upon debt it becomes ever less likely that they will be able to pay it back so you stop lending to them. Indeed, this outcome was, at some stage, inevitable.
But what of the effect on America? Like anything else as the buyers for Treasury bonds disappear their price will fall. In the world of bond financing this means higher bond yields, rising American borrowing costs in other words.
The Federal government’s debt binge will come to an end. It is simply a question, to paraphrase Von Mises, of whether this should happen sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of increasing indebtedness, or later amid the catastrophe of default and inflation. Maybe Ryan’s 40 year detox isn’t so bad after all?
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