Chinese-U.S. Exchange Rates and Knowledge Capital Flows: Why We Feel Poorer

The short summary:   The Chinese policy of buying dollars can be best understood as an indirect purchase of U.S. knowledge capital–technology and business know-how.  That, in a nutshell, is why we feel poorer today. Unless the Obama Administration understands the link between the undervalued yuan and the global  flows of knowledge capital,  negotiations with China are doomed to fail.

Viewed in the usual economic light, Chinese exchange rate policy in recent years looks like a gift to the U.S..   By buying up dollars to keep the yuan low, China–still a poor country– is effectively lending money to the U.S.–still a rich country–to buy Chinese products.  According to the official statistics, the U.S. has run a cumulative $1.4 trillion trade deficit with China since 2005. But over the same period, Chinese ownership of  dollar-denominated financial assets in the U.S. has risen by $1.3 trillion.

To put it another way, the conventional statistics seem to be saying that  the U.S. is getting $350+ billion a year in cheap clothing, electronics products, and toys at no real cost today.  What’s not to like?

But if this explanation was really correct–if  that purchase of dollars  was a gift from China–the U.S. would  be feeling happy and prosperous right now.  We have received all of these cheap goods and services, without having to give up very many of our own resources.

But of course, the U.S. doesn’t feel rich and happy right now–we feel poorer, while the Chinese are feeling more prosperous. How can we explain this?

The  reason why the Chinese purchase of dollars seems like a gift is  because we have a 20th century statistical system trying to track a 21st century  global economy. We can do a decent job tracking the flows of goods and services and a passable job tracking financial flows.  But there is no statistical agency tracking global knowledge capital flows–and that’s where the real story is. Take a look at this diagram.

The first three boxes represent the conventional view: The U.S. gets cheap goods and services, and then pays for them by selling financial  assets.

But that leaves out the  the transfer of knowledge capital  from the U.S. to China. In effect, the Chinese purchase of dollars is a mammoth subsidy for the transfer of technology and business-know into China.

Consider this. When China keeps the yuan low, that’s an inducement for U.S.-based companies to set up factories and research facilities in China, both for sale in China and for imports back to the U.S. .  And that, in turn, requires a transfer of  technology and business know-how from the U.S. to China.

My favorite example is furniture makers.  Over the years, U.S. furniture makers had accumulated this vast storehouse of knowledge–for example, how to make  coatings on dining room tables that are less likely to chip or discolor from heat or liquids. That’s one of the differences between a low-quality and a high-quality table.

As the manufacturing of furniture was offshored to China, the knowledge capital had to be transferred as well.   And that, in turn, helped turn the Chinese furniture industry into a global exporting powerhouse.

Now, let’s stop and make  three points here. First, we need to compliment China. It is not easy to absorb knowledge capital from the outside and make good use of it.  Frankly, all sorts of other countries could have tried the same exchange rate trick, and it wouldn’t have worked for them.

Second, the transfer of knowledge capital to China doesn’t mean that the same knowledge capital  disappears in the U.S. However, our knowledge capital  does become less valuable because there is more global competition–and that’s why we feel poorer.

Third, what’s needed from Washington is a sophisticated  response that both focuses on rebuilding our own knowledge capital, while at the same time slowing down the exchange-rate knowledge capital pump. More to come on this.

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About Michael Mandel 126 Articles

Michael Mandel was BusinessWeek's chief economist from 1989-2009, where he helped direct the magazine's coverage of the domestic and global economies.

Since joining BusinessWeek in 1989, he has received multiple awards for his work, including being honored as one of the 100 top U.S. business journalists of the 20th century for his coverage of the New Economy. In 2006 Mandel was named "Best Economic Journalist" by the World Leadership Forum.

Mandel is the author of several books, including Rational Exuberance, The Coming Internet Depression, and The High Risk Society.

Mandel holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University.

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