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Finance and economics
Updated: 1 hour 14 min ago

China cannot easily weaponise its holdings of American government debt

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 10:33

AN OLD SAYING: if you owe the bank $100 it’s your problem; if you owe $100m it’s the bank’s. The adage is silent on debts like America’s to China, of more than $1.1trn. The IOU looks like a source of leverage for China’s leadership—a reason for President Donald Trump to be cautious in waging trade war, lest his counterpart, Xi Jinping, command the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) to dump its Treasury bonds and plunge America into a fiscal crisis. An editorial on May 29th in the People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, suggested that China might restrict exports to America of rare earths, which are used in smartphones, electric vehicles and much more. Seen against fresh threats, the $20bn-worth of long-term bonds China sold in March might seem a shot across the bow. Yet China’s bond pile is more blunderbuss than laser-guided missile. It is as likely to miss or blow up as to strike its target.

China’s bond-buying began innocently enough. Its leaders, eager to follow the time-tested path to export-led development, favoured an undervalued currency. In the early 2000s, as rapid growth in output and exports put upward pressure on the exchange rate, the PBOC sold yuan and bought dollars, most of which it parked in American Treasuries. Cheap funding looked like a boon to America, at the time awash in red ink because...

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