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Spending on China's credit card

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James Reynolds | 11:31 UK time, Tuesday, 30 September 2008

National holidays this week in China (1 October is the anniversary of the 1949 revolution which brought the Communist Party to power).

The holidays mean that the Shanghai stock exchange is closed. So, we won't know how the markets here will react to the US non-bail-out till the exchange opens again on 5 October. But this country is keeping a close eye on the financial crisis currently hacking its way through the United States and Europe.

Man watching shares index in ChinaAs it stands right now, the first wave of this crisis doesn't appear to have hit China too badly. Chinese banks didn't get hugely involved in sub-prime mortgages. Reports say that this country's financial institutions have stacked up about 4.3 billion dollars in losses (out of more than $500bn worldwide).

But, in the longer term, the crisis is bound to affect China much more directly. One simple reason explains it: if the world's biggest consumer, the United States, can no longer afford to buy as much, China will no longer be able to sell as much.

That's important, because China's recent growth is based on its exports and on its engagement with the world - the United States in particular. If the world scales down what it can buy, that will have a huge impact here.

If people in Pennsylvania can't afford new DVD players or new microwave ovens, manufacturers in China will have fewer people to sell to and may have to shut down. The downturn in the States has already affected businesses in Shenzhen in southern China which would normally export in bulk to the US.

And there's another, crucial way in which China and the US are locked together. In simple terms, America's been having a great time spending on China's credit card. Consumers in the US have been able to buy homes, cars and occasional yachts partly because China's been willing to invest its own savings in US debt.

The background: China has huge amounts of foreign exchange reserves - or what you or I would call savings. China didn't want to keep all of it under a mattress, so it scouted around for a place to keep it safe. It chose US Treasury bonds - low yield, but low risk - based on the belief that the US economy is its safest long-term bet. So far, China has invested several hundred billion dollars in these bonds.

John McCain and Barack ObamaBut now - because of the financial crisis - America's having to look pretty closely at its spending. And it's uneasy with the fact that so much of its buying has been financed by a country which may become its greatest global rival. The subject was mentioned by both presidential candidates during their first debate...

"One of the major reasons why we're in the difficulties we are in today is because spending got out of control. We owe China $500bn." - Senator John McCain.

"We've got challenges, for example, with China, where we are borrowing billions of dollars. They now hold a trillion dollars' worth of our debt." - Senator Barack Obama.

(It may be slightly worrying to find that the two men differ by $500bn as to how much the US owes China - one would imagine that China's keeping a slightly more accurate count of its money.)

I haven't come across any suggestion at the moment that China will stop investing its savings in the US economy. But here's a question for the future - what happens if China decides to invest its money somewhere else?

PS. I'll be away during October. Please have a look at our Asia-Pacific index for news about China. See you back here in November!


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