China: The Dollar Must be Replaced; Yet Again

On music and art

Things have been so busy that I haven’t been posting as much as I would like. Besides my increased writing commitments and the constant barrage of news, I would like to mention that over the past weekend we completed the second annual festival of experimental and avant garde music, featuring the best Chinese composers and performers from all over the country, and several of my regular blog readers attended – thanks for that, even though this blog is no longer available inside the Chinese firewall.

Twenty hours of music over two days is not always easy, especially when some of the music is “challenging,” to say the least, but I am pleased to say that this festival has become the premier event in China for new and experimental music and the turnout was larger than expected and very enthusiastic. So far we don’t seem to have been affected by the economic crisis. In particular performances by Mamur, Li Jiahong and Li Tieqiao, Shouwang’s White Ensemble and a number of others were exceptionally good. We’re all still exhausted, but already I have been getting urgent enquires about our plans for next year.

While on the subject of art I should note that the People’s Daily had an article today on difficulties facing the Chinese art market.

The global economic meltdown has hit the city’s art exhibition industry, with several big international events attracting less funds than before or even being postponed, exhibition organizers said.

The article goes on to discuss difficulties facing the 798 Art District in Beijing “a center featuring primarily non-government-funded art events, where many shows were cancelled.”

I am not totally sympathetic because it seems to me that the commercial art scene here was simply part of the late stage credit bubble, and the young artists I like best were never really able to participate. But it is a nonetheless interesting story because historically art bubbles have always been part of the bubble cycle.

On that topic, I thought I would make a quick, and perhaps a little snide, reference to an article in last month’s New York Times about the Chinese art market. About a year ago I had dinner with a group of people which included a couple of gallery owners specializing in contemporary Chinese art. Not surprisingly, they were ebullient about the seemingly inexorable rise of Chinese contemporary art prices, and perhaps also not surprisingly, I was enough of a wet blanket to argue that we were soon going to see a total collapse in art prices.

Why? Because every serious financial bubble in history was, towards its later stages, accompanied with an even more ferocious bubble in art prices, and when the bubble burst, art prices were among those worst hit (I refrained from adding that although there are a number of young Chinese underground artists whose works I really love – stand up, Cult Youth Collective – for the most part I was very unimpressed with the commercial stuff getting most of the attention).

Needless to say most of the dinner guests were politely skeptical, and my pointing out the examples of the Japanese art market in the 1980s and the Arab art market in the 1970s – two markets that people don’t talk about much anymore, it seems – didn’t make much difference. One month later I read in one of the British newspapers that some well-known London-based art dealer had announced that prices in the art market had reached a level that represented long-term artistic value, and would not be affected by the crisis (art prices have reached a stable plateau? I hope he was otherwise as good an art dealer as Irving Fisher was an economist).

So what does the New York Times article say?

A global financial crisis has wiped out vast amounts of personal wealth, prompting a plunge in art prices. Suddenly bereft of visitors, galleries are laying off staff members, and the collectors who patronized them now worry that their art investments may prove a colossal folly. “It’s been a long, cold winter,” said Zoe Butt, director of international programs at Long March Space, which is closing two of its three Beijing galleries. “The era of Chinese contemporary art commanding such high prices is over.”

…Globally, the recent rise in Chinese artists’ fortunes was unparalleled. Only one Chinese artist — Zao Wouki, a traditional painter who lives in France — ranked among the Top 10 best-selling living artists in 2004, according to Artprice.com, which tracks auction sales. (He ranked ninth.) But by 2007, 5 of the 10 best-selling living artists at auction were Chinese-born, led by Zhang Xiaogang, who trailed only Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst. That year, Mr. Zhang’s auction sales totaled $56 million, according to Artprice.com. Many collectors were seduced by the numbers. “For people who got into the market three years ago, I feel sorry for them,” said Fabien Fryns, who runs F2 Gallery in Beijing.

When people say that it isn’t easy to know if we were in the midst of a bubble, I can only respond that when, in just three years, the number of Chinese artists in the top ten living best-sellers zooms from one to five, it must be obvious that we are in a particularly frothy bubble. No matter how rapidly talent and access to collectors improve, the quality of an art scene simply cannot adjust at anywhere near that speed. I am sure even Renaissance Florence under Cosimo de Medici’s very wise patronage took much longer than three years to move so far up the artist-income scale.

A new reserve currency

But back to less exalted things. The number one topic of conversation right not seems to be an essay posted in both English and Chinese on the PBoC’s website by PBoC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan. In it Governor Zhou argues that the world needs a new and better reserve currency, one not dominated by a single country, and that it is in the best interest of the world that this reserve currency be created by a body like the IMF. Funnily enough for all the attention the essay received I saw no mention of it on either Xinhua or the People’s Daily.

We have heard these kinds of arguments many times before over the course of the 20th century, and usually in response to a global balance of payments crisis. Is there anything new about this proposal? Some commentators saw this essay as a purely political move. Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times, for example, had this to report:

China’s central bank on Monday proposed replacing the US dollar as the international reserve currency with a new global system controlled by the International Monetary Fund. In an essay posted on the People’s Bank of China’s website, Zhou Xiaochuan, the central bank’s governor, said the goal would be to create a reserve currency “that is disconnected from individual nations and is able to remain stable in the long run, thus removing the inherent deficiencies caused by using credit-based national currencies”.

Analysts said the proposal was an indication of Beijing’s fears that actions being taken to save the domestic US economy would have a negative impact on China. “This is a clear sign that China, as the largest holder of US dollar financial assets, is concerned about the potential inflationary risk of the US Federal Reserve printing money,” said Qu Hongbin, chief China economist for HSBC.

Although Mr Zhou did not mention the US dollar, the essay gave a pointed critique of the current dollar-dominated monetary system.

Others were more intrigued by the theoretical implications of the essay. A number of people including Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz, are supportive of the idea, arguing that the status of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency creates unnecessary problems for both the US and the rest of the world.

Most importantly for the US it means that it is very difficult for the Fed to manage domestic monetary policy because the US financial system must accommodate not only conditions in the US but also distortions introduced by the use of the US dollar as a reserve currency, and these distortions can be massive. The most obvious example is the way over the past decade systematic industrial policies mainly in China and East Asia aimed at running trade surpluses and the accumulation of reserves meant that the US economy and its financial and monetary systems were forced to adjust in ways that created large and serious imbalances, which only now are we resolving.

But although I think the world would be better off if there were an active alternative to the US dollar, I can’t help but think all this flurry of talk is a waste of time and driven mainly by political considerations almost wholly divorced from any understanding of exactly what a reserve currency is and how its status is achieved. Every decade or so there are calls for the replacement of the US dollar with a more international reserve “currency” but they always lead exactly nowhere, and I can’t think of any reason why this time will be different. On the contrary, one of my working assumptions is that with the end of the global liquidity cycle the value of liquidity will be higher than ever. New currencies and currency unions thrive during the liquidity cycle. They almost never survive the end of the cycle.

Perhaps Governor Zhou has much more faith than I do in the role policymakers have in creating reserve status – as if you could fill a few boxes, make a political decision, and then simply create a new, widely used reserve currency. But the fact is that excessive reliance on the US dollar was not a policy decision. If the world truly wants a more “balanced” reserve currency system there are, after all, many currencies that could have functioned alongside the US dollar, but investors, central banks, and international traders seem to have had little interest in acquiring a “balanced” portfolio of reserve currencies.

For one thing liquidity is key, and I think not even the euro – and certainly not SDRs or alternatives to the SDR – can ever hope to achieve anything like the level of liquidity implicit in the US dollar market. For another thing, for a currency to achieve reserve status there must be some systematic way of delivering the currency to central banks and other players who want to acquire it, and the US does so by its ability and willingness to run persistent trade deficits. How will the IMF or whoever controls the SDR create and assign reserves?

More specifically, if the SDR is indeed a true reserve currency, and not simply an accounting entry that allows central banks to pretend that they are not holding dollars but whose value ultimately rests on its convertibility to the US dollar, who will determine the global money supply and how do we prevent this from becoming a horribly politicized process? After all the Fed has an interest in seeing stability in the value and use of the dollar, and so it can be counted on more or less to act in the best interest of the reserve currency, but why should anyone care about the value of the SDR over the long term and, more importantly, how can prudent behavior be enforced? More worryingly, if Europe has had so much trouble managing monetary policy among a group of neighboring countries with fairly similar social and economic conditions, how do we manage monetary policy on a global scale?

Perhaps the SDR is a covert way of getting back to something resembling the gold standard by creating a fiat currency with very strict rules about its expansion. If that is the case, the SDR almost certainly won’t last long. Since we’ve gone off the gold standard we have forgotten how brutal and unforgiving gold-standard discipline can be, and I think it was Barry Eichengreem who argued in Golden Fetters that the gold standard could only work in a society in which the poor and the weak have little political power, the voting franchise is limited, and the impact of monetary policies on underlying economic conditions was not widely understood.

Unemployment

All this talk of new currencies and new financial architecture is obviously aimed at the upcoming G20 meetings. I very much doubt anything useful will come of the meeting except for diplomatically restrained name-calling, and I am currently writing a piece to be published by the Carnegie Endowment (who I recently joined), which I hope to have by the end of this week, discussing some of the issues the participants are going to face.

Bu away from the world of high finance I thought I would mention two things. The first is an article in last week’s Xinhua on hiring prospects.

The latest report by major job service provider Manpower indicates that hiring prospects in China may continue to drop by a “considerable 10 percent” in the second quarter as the global financial crisis began to affect the real economy. The report, based on a survey which covered 4,149 employers across the country, showed that the eastern job markets were experiencing the weakest hiring climate in four years.

The next article, on the same topic, is from today’s People’s Daily. It focuses specifically on the job outlook for college graduates. Last week I read an article – also in People’s Daily, I think, but I can no longer find it – in which it was claimed that the share of Guangdong students graduating in 2009 who already have job offers was less than half of the share last year at this time. Today’s article seems to confirm this:

In an unfortunate reversal of fortune, more than 70 percent of upcoming graduates have yet to secure a job. “Normally about 70 percent of graduates have job offers in March, but now the situation is completely upside down,” Wu Xiaohui, senior campus recruitment consultant with Shanghai Foreign Service Co Ltd (SFSC), told China Daily yesterday.

The article goes on to say:

According to another survey by SFSC, about 55 percent of the city’s 104 multinational corporations didn’t intend to recruit new staff this year amid the deepening recession. Among those who plan to hire, half will recruit fewer than 10 people, compared with an average of 50 to 100 people in previous years.

Along with this gloomy outlook the World Bank last week cut its growth forecast for China. When they cut their forecast last year, I said they would revise it downward at least one more time. Perhaps this time will be the last downwards revision for 2009, but if it is, expect a series of downward revisions for 2010. This is from last week’s Xinhua:

The World Bank (WB) has cut its forecast for China’s 2009 economic growth yet again — this time to 6.5 percent from 7.5 percent, it said here Wednesday. This is the second cut the bank has made for China’s 2009 gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast. Last November its prediction stood at 9.2 percent.

This came after the bank lowered its forecast for the 2009 world economy, which was expected to decline 1.5 percent from 2008. In November, the WB forecast the world economy would grow 1 percent this year.

About Michael Pettis 166 Articles

Affiliation: Peking University

Michael Pettis is a professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets. He has also taught, from 2002 to 2004, at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management and, from 1992 to 2001, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

Pettis has worked on Wall Street in trading, capital markets, and corporate finance since 1987, when he joined the Sovereign Debt trading team at Manufacturers Hanover (now JP Morgan). Most recently, from 1996 to 2001, Pettis worked at Bear Stearns, where he was Managing Director-Principal heading the Latin American Capital Markets and the Liability Management groups.

Visit: China Financial Markets

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