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China’s American Bailout?

ZURICH – The twenty-first-century economy has thus far been shaped by capital flows from China to the United States – a pattern that has suppressed global interest rates, helped to reflate the developed world’s leverage bubble, and, through its impact on the currency market, fueled China’s meteoric rise. But these were no ordinary capital flows. Rather than being driven by direct or portfolio investment, they came primarily from the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), as it amassed $3.5 trillion in foreign reserves – largely US Treasury securities.

The fact that a single institution wields so much influence over global macroeconomic trends has caused considerable anxiety, with doomsayers predicting that doubts about US debt sustainability will force China to sell off its holdings of US debt. This would drive up interest rates in the US and, ultimately, could trigger the dollar’s collapse.

But selling off US Treasury securities, it was argued, was not in China’s interest, given that it would drive up the renminbi’s exchange rate against the dollar, diminishing the domestic value of China’s reserves and undermining the export sector’s competitiveness. Indeed, a US defense department report last year on the national-security implications of China’s holdings of US debt concluded that “attempting to use US Treasury securities as a coercive tool would have limited effect and likely would do more harm to China than to the [US].”

To describe the symbiotic relationship between China’s export-led GDP growth and America’s excessive consumption, the economic historians Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick coined the term “Chimerica.” The invocation of the chimera of Greek mythology – a monstrous, fire-breathing amalgam of lion, goat, and dragon – makes the term all the more appropriate, given that Chimerica has generated massive and terrifying distortions in the global economy that cannot be corrected without serious consequences.