International economists say China's huge buildup of foreign currency reserves has contributed to the boom conditions that have led to a bubble in the Shanghai stock market, which is up 400 percent in less than two years. VOA's Barry Wood has more on what might be an unanticipated consequence of China's export success.
Ted Truman was the top international specialist at the Federal Reserve and then the U.S. Treasury during the East Asian financial crisis a decade ago. Now a fellow at Washington's Peterson Institute for International Economics, Truman believes China has made a mistake by not allowing its currency's value to rise faster against the dollar. The resulting buildup of foreign reserves, he says, is having unintended consequences that could hurt China's domestic economy.
"The risk is principally on the internal side. The buildup of these reserves is creating domestic liquidity (expanded money supply), which will create boom conditions in domestic markets -- real estate and other markets -- and eventually a bust," he said.
China's has more hard currency reserves than any other nation. Currently exceeding $1 trillion, China's reserves are growing rapidly in tandem with its expanding trade surplus. David Hale, a China specialist based in Chicago, says the accumulation of reserves is a legacy of the 1997-1998 financial crisis in Asia.
"You know, one of the reasons the Asian countries are so conservative in running current account (balance of payments) surpluses and having these huge foreign exchange reserves is because they remember this crisis very acutely. It was the most traumatic experience they've gone through in living memory. So it had a major impact in how they think," he said.
Truman agrees that the accumulation of reserves is a defensive response to the 1997 crisis. "They think it was lack of foreign exchange that caused the crisis. And that is one reason for the building up of reserves. The other reason basically is that they're running export-oriented growth policies," he said.
But Hale says there is little doubt that the Chinese stock market has become a bubble that will be deflated one way or another, either by raising interest rates to take money out of the economy or by allowing it to keep growing until it overheats.
"If they (the Chinese authorities) keep raising interest rates, they could eventually crush it. But right now their policy is to change policy very incrementally and gradually. The odds are low that they will fully get what they wan," he said.
Both economists agree that East Asia's financial defenses are stronger than they were a decade ago when institutional investors (hedge funds) were able to force a devaluation of Thailand's currency, the event that triggered what became a regional financial problem. Truman believes there could be financial turmoil in China," he said.
"The problem would be if there is a bust and generalized downturn in East Asia, probably led by China -- not necessarily a downturn but just a severe slowdown -- that will lead to a series of bad loans and an internal crisis," he said.
So, would a currency revaluation help avert financial turmoil in China? Ted Truman says Chinese policy makers have not made up their mind. "On the one hand, they want to slow down overall growth. On the other, they don't want to slow down overall growth. It's always difficult to manage a boom. The best thing would be not to start from where you are. But they don't have that option," he said.
China continues to have the fastest growing major world economy. Its rapid growth over the past decade has lifted 300 million Chinese out of poverty. And yet for all its success, it faces some potential problems. Its banking system remains weak and, if the stock market bubble bursts, it may have trouble coping with the financial distress and bad loans that would accompany a sudden market decline.
During the financial crisis of 10 years ago, China's economy was relatively weak and did not suffer nearly as much as most other Asian countries. However, if another crisis hits now, China's leaders realize they -- and their people -- have much more to lose if they cannot deal with it properly.