The US still runs the world

August 31, 2015 08:55
The world still looks to the Federal Open Market Committee in the United States for direction on interest rates. Photo: US Federal Reserve

Reports of the death of American power have often been greatly exaggerated.

In the 1950s, the Soviet Union was thought to have surpassed the United States; today, the Soviet Union no longer exists.

In the 1980s, Japan was widely regarded as on the verge of overtaking the US; today, after more than two decades of Japanese stagnation, no one would take this scenario seriously.

And in the 1990s, monetary union was considered likely to propel Europe to greater global prominence; today, the European economy is frequently in the world’s headlines, but not in a good way.

Now it is China’s turn.

Until recently, China, in many people’s view, was poised to assume global leadership, if it hadn’t done so already.

Today, doubts about the Chinese economy’s long-term prospects are rattling stock markets worldwide (including in the US).

China matters, and its economic policy, including how the exchange rate is managed, must be taken seriously.

But China does not run the world, and it is unlikely to do so any time soon.

The potential for global leadership still rests, believe it or not, with the US.

The best case for taking China seriously as a world power is made in Arvind Subramanian’s best-selling book Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance, published in 2011.

(The author, now chief economic adviser at India’s finance ministry, and I were colleagues and sometimes co-authors at the International Monetary Fund and the Peterson Institute for International Economics.)

One hopes that the Indian government will heed Subramanian’s account of how China grew through exports of manufactured goods and associated productivity improvements.

China also became integrated into global supply chains – producing things for companies elsewhere – on a previously unimaginable scale, and Chinese managers learned how to make better products.

But other parts of China’s experience have served it less well over time.

China ran a very large current account surplus during the early 2000s and accumulated a vast stock of foreign reserves – including at least several trillion US dollars’ worth of US Treasury debt.

Although this looks impressive on paper, reserves of this magnitude are essentially useless.

If China were to sell its US assets, the US dollar would weaken, and US companies would find it easier to export and to compete against imports.

But Americans’ anxiety about being overtaken is not new.

There was great angst in the late 1980s when a Japanese company bought New York City’s Rockefeller Center.

In retrospect, that was one of the great non-events of the 20th century.

Similarly, Americans will most likely look back on China’s accumulation of US government debt and simply shrug.

The bigger issue is China’s exchange rate policy.

For a long time, China prevented the renminbi from becoming overvalued – and this was good policy, as Subramanian’s research confirms.

But in the early 2000s, China went too far.

For reasons that are still debated, the renminbi became massively undervalued; exports were much higher than imports, and the current account surplus reached more than 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Instead of letting the renminbi appreciate and gradually reducing their reliance on export markets, the Chinese authorities preferred to accumulate foreign reserves (US Treasury debt).

Now China has to figure out a way to sustain growth when demand in the rest of the world is sluggish.

A return to a substantially undervalued exchange rate would almost certainly provoke an international response, including from the US Congress.

But switching suddenly to domestic-led growth is not easy.

China will not collapse (it is not the Soviet Union), and Japanese-style stagnation is also unlikely.

But China is aging fast – and could become old before it becomes rich.

Every decade, important people predict the end of American power.

And there are reasons to be concerned – particularly when some US politicians refuse to acknowledge the nature of America’s global role.

For example, the US built the world’s trading and monetary system 70 years ago, but now Republicans in Congress refuse to support change at the IMF – including sensible reforms that almost all other countries favor.

Still, it is the US that is currently leading the push for freer trade across the Pacific and a substantial reduction in barriers to trade with Europe.

If America gets the rules right – favoring ordinary citizens, rather than footloose corporations – its trade initiatives will make a major contribution to global growth and its own prosperity.

Likewise, in terms of monetary policy, the major issue for the world over the next year is when and how much the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates.

The policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee will move interest rates based almost entirely on its collective reading of US economic circumstances.

Once again, the rest of the world will react to what the US does.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the IMF, is a professor at MIT Sloan, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and co-founder of a leading economics blog, The Baseline Scenario. He is the co-author, with Jonathan G