Tag: China

Do We Need China to Fund Our Mortgage Market?

Earlier this week I repeatedly heard the claim that if the federal government does not guarantee credit risk in the mortgage market, foreigners won’t buy U.S. mortgage-related debt.  Before we test whether that claim is true, let’s first determine just how important are foreign investors in the U.S. mortgage market.

For the most part, foreign investors do not hold U.S. mortgages directly, but either hold Fannie and Freddie debt and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) or hold private-label MBS.  As the private-label securities lack a government guarantee, we can ignore that segment of the market.  The chart below depicts the percentage share of foreign ownership of these securities in recent years:

The chart illustrates that, at times (particularly around the peak of the recent housing bubble), foreign investors have been large providers of capital to the GSEs.  In 2007, over 20% of GSE debt was held outside the United States, double the percentage from only a few years earlier.  The increase was driven almost exclusively by purchases by foreign governments (mostly central banks for the purpose of currency manipulation).  In 2007, this amounted to just over $1.5 trillion. 

However, if we went back and looked at a year prior to the super-heated housing market — say 2003 — then this total is about $650 billion.  Given that U.S. commercial banks now have about $1 trillion in cash sitting on their balance sheets, it appears that domestic sources could completely fund the U.S. mortgage market without any foreign funds.

But let’s say we want to keep the option of living beyond our means and have the rest of the world fund a large part of our mortgage market.  Would they?  Given that foreign investors currently hold over $5.4 trillion in U.S. corporate bonds and equities (not all guaranteed by the U.S. taxpayer), I think it’s fair to assume that these foreign investors have some appetite for U.S.  assets. 

Now does that mean foreigners would buy the debt of massively leveraged, mismanaged mortgage companies subject to constant political-cronyism, without some guarantee?  Probably not.  But then, it strikes me that a better way to attract foreign investment into the U.S. mortgage market is to deal with those issues, rather than paper over those problems with a taxpayer-funded guarantee. 

It is also worth noting that when we most needed foreign support for the U.S. mortgage market, in 2008, foreign investors were dumping Fannie and Freddie debt in significant amounts.  And obviously I think we’d prefer that the Chinese Central Bank stop using the purchase of Fannie and Freddie debt to depress the value of their own currency.

China Cracks Down on Ideas. And Music. And Advertising.

The government of China finally confirmed that it has detained the artist Ai Weiwei. Meanwhile, Evan Osnos writes from Beijing for the New Yorker about China’s “Big Chill”:

Step by step—so quietly, in fact, that the full facts of it can be startling—China has embarked on the most intense crackdown on free expression in years. Overshadowed by news elsewhere in recent weeks, China has been rounding up writers, lawyers, and activists since mid-February, when calls began to circulate for protests inspired by those in the Middle East and North Africa. By now the contours are clear: according to a count by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, the government has “criminally detained 26 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention.”

Indeed, everywhere I turn today, there’s news about Chinese censorship and fear of dissent, of ideas, of art, of words like “luxury.” The Washington Post has a major article on Bob Dylan’s concert Wednesday night in Beijing. Dylan, the troubadour of the peace movement and the Sixties and civil rights, in the capital of the world’s largest Communist party-state. How’d that go? Ask Keith Richburg, whose Post article is titled “The times they are a-censored”:

Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.

Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list – which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos — was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.

In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements.

But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick” in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.”

There was no “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in China. And definitely no “Chimes of Freedom.”

Meanwhile, NPR reports that Beijing has banned words such as “luxury,” “supreme,” “regal,” and “high-class” on billboards:

The city’s new rules state that ads must not glorify “hedonism, feudal emperors, heavenly imperial nobility” or anything vulgar, according to the Global Times newspaper. They also should not violate “spiritual construction” standards or worship foreign products — leading some to believe the campaign could be targeting foreign luxury goods.

“The truth is that the party has very clearly started what is very clearly a campaign against ostentation in China,” says David Wolf of Wolf Group Asia, a communications advisory agency. “There is a pushback against things Western. And there is the desire to see those Western things take a lesser role in the development of Chinese culture.”…

China Daily reports that the campaign is aimed at protecting social harmony, quoting a sociologist who says advertisements that promote the belief that “wealth is dignity” could upset low-income residents.

Now there’s some good old-fashioned communist thinking! Of course, communists with the courage of their convictions would ban the products, not just the ad copy. But it’s nice to see the old values survive.

In some ways the government’s confirmation that it has detained Ai Weiwei is the most chilling indication of the new climate. It came in an editorial in Global Times, a vigorous presenter of the government line. Just listen to the combative language:

Ai Weiwei likes to do something “others dare not do.” He has been close to the red line of Chinese law….

The West ignored the complexity of China’s running judicial environment and the characteristics of Ai Weiwei’s individual behavior. They simply described it as China’s “human rights suppression.”

“Human rights” have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world.

“Human rights” are seen as incompatible things with China’s great economic and social progress by the West. It is really a big joke. Chinese livelihood is developing, the public opinion no longer follows the same pattern all the time and “social justice” has been widely discussed. Can these be denied? The experience of Ai Weiwei and other mavericks cannot be placed on the same scale as China’s human rights development and progress.

As I’ve written before, China faces a dilemma. They have opened up their economy and reaped huge benefits, perhaps the largest advance in human well-being in the history of the world – as the editors of Global Times defiantly argue. But if China wants to become known as a center of innovation and progress, not just a military superpower or a manufacturer, it will need to open further. Investors want to put money into a country with the rule of law. Creative people want to live in a country that allows them to read, write, think, and act freely.

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele, author of From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation, wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West–technology, innovation, entrepreneurship–without adopting its liberal values. ”We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with strip-tease.”

How much freedom can China’s rulers tolerate? How much repression will its citizens tolerate? How many ambitious, creative Chinese will leave the world’s largest market to find more creative freedom elsewhere? These may be the most important questions in the world over the next generation.

Why Trading with China is Good for Us

Back in February, more than 100 House members introduced a bill that would make it easier to slap duties on imports from China. I explain why picking a trade fight with China would be a bad idea all around in an article just published in the print edition of National Review magazine.

Titled “Deal with the Dragon: Trade with the Chinese is good for us, them, and the world,” the article explains why our burgeoning trade with the Middle Kingdom is benefiting Americans as consumers, especially low- and middle-income families that spend a higher share on the everyday consumer items we import from China.

We also benefit as producers—China is now the no. 3 market for U.S. exports and by far the fastest growing major market. Chinese investment in Treasury bills keeps interest rates down in the face of massive federal borrowing, preventing our own private domestic investment from being crowded out.

The article also argues that, “As the Chinese middle class expands, it becomes not only a bigger market for U.S. goods and services, but also more fertile soil for political and civil freedoms.”

You can read the full article at the link above. Better yet, pick up the April 4 print edition of the magazine, the one with Gov. Rick Perry on the cover. My article begins on p. 20. (It might be a holdover from my newspaper days, but I still get an extra kick out of seeing an article printed in a real publication.)

P.S. For a fuller treatment of our trade relations with China, you can check out my 2009 Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization. China takes center stage in several places in the book, which—did I mention?—was just named a runner-up finalist for the Atlas Foundation’s 22nd Annual Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Award for the best think-tank book of 2009-10.

Despite Huawei’s Experience, America Is Open to Chinese Investment

After several days of defiance, Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer Huawei announced Monday that it would abide a recommendation from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) that it divest of U.S. technology company 3-Leaf. CFIUS is an inter-agency group charged with reviewing the national security implications of proposed foreign investments in U.S. companies and assets and advising the president about whether or not he should block those transactions on security grounds. CFIUS is composed of representatives from 16 different U.S. government departments and agencies and is chaired by the Secretary of the Treasury.

Last week, CFIUS issued a recommendation that the president block Huawei’s $2 million purchase of assets—including certain patents—from 3-Leaf on the grounds that the transaction presented a risk to national security. (Technically, the recommendation was for the president to compel Huawei to divest of 3-Leaf, since the transaction was consummated in May 2010, before CFIUS was made aware of the deal). Apparently, CFIUS was concerned about Huawei’s ties to the Chinese government—specifically the Chinese military.

Despite assurances from Huawei’s vice president of government affairs, William Plummer, that the company “is 100 percent employee-owned and has no ties with any government, nor with the PLA,” Huawei’s ownership structure is opaque. A letter submitted to administration officials from U.S. Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) alleged that Huawei has a “history of illegal behavior and ties with the People’s Liberation Army, Taliban and Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” The letter also accused Huawei of various patent and trademark infringements and suggested that the small scale of Huawei’s acquisition ($2 million) was designed to enable the transaction to avoid scrutiny—a theory that is lent credibility by Huawei’s decision not to inform CFIUS of its intention to purchase 3-Leaf.

Huawei’s decision this week to abandon the deal spares the president from issuing a formal opinion on the matter, and in all likelihood spares Huawei the added humiliation of a formal rejection from the U.S. president. Meanwhile, Huawei and officials of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce are lambasting the CFIUS decision as further evidence that the United States is closed to Chinese direct investment, and implying that U.S. investors might expect similarly shoddy treatment in China. What to make of all of this?

First, as I’ve argued before (e.g., here, here, and here), the United States should be open to foreign direct investment from all countries and the rules and regulations governing investment should be transparent, consistent, straightforward, and applied equally to suitors from all countries. That being said, state and local governments should be aggressively courting Chinese investment, for the reasons I gave in a paper published 14 months ago:

If it is desirable that China recycle some of its estimated $2.4 trillion in accumulated foreign reserves, U.S. policy … should be more welcoming of Chinese investment in the private sector. As of the close of 2008, Chinese direct investment in the United States stood at just $1.2 billion—a mere rounding error at about 0.05 percent of the $2.3 trillion in total foreign direct investment in the United States. That figure comes nowhere close to the amount of U.S. direct investment held by foreigners in other big economies. U.S. direct investment in 2008 held in the United Kingdom was $454 billion; it was $260 billion in Japan, $259 billion in the Netherlands, $221 billion in Canada, $211 billion in Germany, $64 billion in Australia, $16 billion in South Korea, and even $1.7 billion in Russia.

Some of China’s past efforts to take equity positions or purchase U.S. companies or buy assets or land to build new production facilities have been viewed skeptically by U.S. policymakers, and scuttled, ostensibly over ill-defined security concerns. But a large inflow of investment from China would have an impact similar to a large increase in U.S. exports to China on the value of both countries’ currencies, and on the level of China’s foreign reserves.

In light of China’s large reserves, its need and desire to diversify, America’s need for investment in the real economy, and the objective of creating jobs and achieving sustained economic growth, U.S. policy should be clarified so that the benchmarks and hurdles facing Chinese investors are better understood.

Since 2008, Chinese direct investment in the United States has increased from $1.2 billion to perhaps as much as $6.5 billion last year. If only President Obama’s speech last week at the Chamber of Commerce exhorting U.S. business to invest and hire were given at the Guandong Business Club…

Second, I am no security expert, so I cannot comment on the credibility of CFIUS’ concerns or the senators’ allegations about Huawei. But I think it is entirely reasonable to have a process, like that conducted by CFIUS under the Foreign Investment and National Security Act, to vet transactions to ensure that those presenting risks to national security are brought to the attention of the president, who can then exercise his discretion to block them. Like some prospective export transactions, some prospective purchases of U.S. assets present legitimate security risks that may warrant intervention. Is the process completely apolitical and immune from insider maneuvering? No. Is there scope for politically driven decision making? Yes. Can the process be used to steer a transaction away from the foreign suitor and toward a politically favored domestic entity? Sure. But so far there have been few accusations of that nature, so why make the perfect the enemy of the good?

Finally, in the immediate case, Huawei acted clumsily, if not irresponsibly, and in defiance of a process with which it should by now be quite familiar. In 2008, Huawei had to withdraw its bid for American company 3Com after CFIUS found national security problems, some of which could have been resolved had Huawei been more forthcoming about its ownership structure and business dealings. Likewise, Huawei was excluded from participation in a major network upgrade by Sprint Nextel over similar concerns about the company’s ties. That the company thought it could just circumvent CFIUS carrying that kind of historical baggage and quietly purchase 3-Leaf last May speaks to a profoundly amateurish decision making process at Huawei, or an imperative to conceal something.

Despite the sour grapes expressed by Huawei and its patron, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, the United States is open and ready to welcome Chinese investment

Tony Soprano Meets the Antidumping Law

Forget all the high-minded rhetoric about “fair trade” and “level playing fields.” Discount the apple-pie claims that the antidumping law protects good American companies and their hard-working employees from unscrupulous, predatory, foreign cheaters. Those are just some of the myths that have sustained the costly antidumping status quo for decades.

If the American public were familiar with all of the sordid details of the antidumping case concerning wooden bedroom furniture from China (which I called a Poster Child for Reform back in 2004), they would be angry and ready to change the law.  Well, on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal did its part by running a story about how U.S. producers of wooden bedroom furniture have been extorting cash from their Chinese competition in exchange for dropping pursuit of even higher antidumping duty rates at the Commerce Department.

The Journal reported that about $13 million was paid to a group of 20 U.S. furniture makers between 2006 through 2009, and that a much larger, but unspecified, amount of money went to pay the U.S. firms’ lawyers.

Surprisingly, this practice is not illegal. Charlotte Lane, one of six commissioners at the U.S. International Trade Commission, which presides over antidumping investigations and sunset reviews, said, “I cannot figure out for the life of me how they are legal.” And her colleague, Commissioner Dan Pearson added that these settlements create “additional costs and distortions” in furniture trade, “with little evidence that these distortions have yielded any benefits to the industry overall, the U.S. consumer, or the U.S. taxpayer.”

But this practice is nothing new. It’s been going on in the shadows for several years in other cases as well. Bill Silverman, a trade lawyer who represents furniture retailers and importers, offered: “Everybody in the industry in the U.S. and China understands that these payments are clever shakedowns.”  Back in 2006, I wrote about similar “shakedowns” with hundreds of exporters from several countries in the shrimp antidumping cases (toward the end of the paper under the subheading, “A Sign of Things to Come?”)

This pay-to-play scheme is made possible by the peculiarities of the U.S. antidumping system. The United States has the distinction of being the only major economy in the world that uses a “retrospective” system for collecting final antidumping duties on imports. That means that importers pay estimated antidumping duties on goods when they enter the United States, but the final liability is not known until much later—often 18 months to several years later. This system creates enormous uncertainty for importers and works effectively to supercharge the impact of U.S. antidumping measures.

Every year the Commerce Department invites parties involved in antidumping cases to request reviews of the most recent year’s imports to determine the actual amount of dumping for that year, and to set new deposit rates going forward. (More detailed description here.) Neither petitioners nor the respondent companies are required to request a review, and if no requests are made within a given time frame, the duty rates already in effect continue.

So, if a foreign exporter has a 10 percent antidumping duty rate on his products, but is managing to continue making sales in the United States, he might not want to request a review of the previous year’s sales, which could establish a higher final liability and a higher deposit rate going forward. But petitioners can request a review of those sales. In the furniture and shrimp cases, petitioners requested reviews of dozens of companies that “could live with” the rates they were paying, thereby introducing the specter of greater uncertainty, more legal and other expenses, and the risk of higher duties. That’s when petitioners offered to rescind those review requests in exchange for payments.

Now, if that doesn’t amount to extortion (link definition), I’m not sure what does.

As I wrote about the shrimp cases in 2006:

Most foreign companies accepted the deal, which arguably was the better option for both parties in each deal. But there is clearly something unseemly about the domestic industry extorting large sums of money from foreign shrimp producers under threat of burying them in heavy legal costs and the uncertainty associated with the Commerce Department’s calculating new antidumping rates. There is also something ominous about the relative ease with which the petitioners’ bar was able to effectively sell access to the U.S. market and split the proceeds with U.S. companies.

Although the Byrd Amendment was found in violation of the ADA [Antidumping Agreement] and will cease to operate next year, the petitioners’ lawyers seem to have concocted a model for effectively resurrecting Byrd. With this success under their belts, petitioners’ lawyers have a new way to market antidumping actions to their current and prospective clients.

These extortions are only the latest shenanigans in the wooden bedroom furniture case. Antidumping is portrayed as a tool to protect “our” producers from “their” producers. But the primary targets in the furniture case were other U.S. furniture producers.  As I wrote in 2004:

The case of Wooden Bedroom Furniture from China has nothing to do with unfair trade and is a perfect example of the need for antidumping reform. The filing of this case was a tactical maneuver by one group of domestic producers that seeks to exploit the gaping loopholes of the antidumping law to get a leg up on its domestic competition. Domestic producers realize that the only way to compete and offer their customers variety is to source at least some production from abroad. Instead of preserving or returning domestic jobs (which is the public justification for the petition) import restrictions will cause a shift in sourcing from China to places like the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil, and Vietnam–places from which many of the petitioners have begun or are poised to begin importing themselves.

The antidumping law is nothing like what its supporters claim it to be.  Its operation works to the benefit of a few industries and crafty insiders at great cost to the rest of the economy.  Let’s hope the Journal article sparks the kind of outrage that will propel serious antidumping reform in the United States.

Rising Exports — and Imports — Are Good News for U.S. Economy

The U.S. trade deficit rose in 2010, and the bilateral deficit with China reached a record high last year, according to the monthly trade report released this morning by the U.S. Commerce Department. The usual critics (such as Peter Morici of the University of Maryland) are already spinning it into yet another indictment of trade, but the report contains a lot of good news for the U.S. economy.

Last year, Americans bought $2,330 billion worth of goods and services from other countries, while selling $1,832 billion, for a trade deficit of $498 billion. Our bilateral deficit with China grew to a record $273 billion.

Politicians and commentators love to focus on the trade deficit, as though it were a scorecard of who is winning in global trade. But the real measure is the total volume of trade. As economies expand, so does trade, both imports and exports. Exports help us reach new markets and expand economies of scale, while imports bless consumers with lower prices and more choices, while stoking competition, innovation, and efficiency gains among producers.

By this measure the trade report was good news all around, and one more sign that the U.S. and global economies continue to recover from the Great Recession. Last year, U.S. exports of goods were up 21 percent from 2009, while imports were up 23 percent. In contrast, in the recession year of 2009, exports of goods dropped 18 percent from the year before while imports plunged 26 percent. (Unemployment soared in 2009, but, hey, at least the trade deficit was “improving”!)

Our trade with China last year tells the same story. The value of goods imported from China rose 23 percent in 2010 (the same rate as imports from the rest of the world), while the value of the goods we exported to China jumped by 32 percent. That’s a rate of export growth that is 50 percent higher than export growth to the rest of the world. Members of Congress who complain that China’s managed currency is somehow a major barrier to U.S. exports should take note.