Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chinese Premier Blames Recession on U.S. Actions

By JASON DEAN in Beijing, JAMES T. AREDDY in Shanghai and SERENA NG in New York Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao squarely blamed the U.S.-led financial system for the world's deepening economic slump, in the most public indication yet of discord between the U.S. government and its largest creditor. Leaders in China, the world's third-largest economy, have been surprised and upset over how much the problems of the U.S. financial sector have hurt China's holdings. In response, Beijing is re-examining its U.S. investments, say people familiar with the government's thinking. Mr. Wen, the first Chinese premier to visit the annual global gathering of economic and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland, delivered a strongly worded indictment of the causes of the crisis, clearly aimed largely at the United States though he didn't name it. Mr. Wen blamed an "excessive expansion of financial institutions in blind pursuit of profit," a failure of government supervision of the financial sector, and an "unsustainable model of development, characterized by prolonged low savings and high consumption." Chinese leaders have felt burned by a series of bad experiences with U.S. investments they had believed were safe, say people familiar with their thinking, including holdings in Morgan Stanley, the collapsed Reserve Primary Fund and mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As a result, the people say, government leaders decided not to make new investments in a number of U.S. companies that sought China's capital. China's pullback from Fannie and Freddie debt helped push up rates on U.S. mortgages last year just as Washington was seeking to revive the U.S. housing market. To be sure, China's economy now is so closely intertwined with the U.S.'s that major, abrupt changes are unlikely. The U.S.-China economic relationship has become arguably the world's most important. China has been recycling its vast export earnings by financing the U.S. deficit through buying Treasurys, helping to keep U.S. interest rates low and give American consumers more spending power to buy Chinese exports. China now has roughly $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, and has continued to buy U.S. government debt -- surpassing Japan in September as the biggest foreign holder of Treasurys, by one official U.S. measure. China must continue to recycle its trade surplus if it doesn't want its currency to appreciate too quickly. Still, the relatively smooth financial ties between the two powers that underpinned the global economic boom of recent years are being tested. As both sides survey the wreckage of the U.S. housing bubble and credit crunch, mutual recriminations are raising doubts about the relationship. The Chinese premier's remarks came a few days after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner fanned the flames when he accused China of "manipulating" its currency during his confirmation process. That was widely seen as an escalation of long-standing U.S. complaints that China artificially depresses the value of the yuan to bolster its exports, and prompted strong denials from Beijing. The Obama administration has since played down the statement's significance. More Friction Frictions between the two countries began to worsen long before Mr. Obama took office. The Chinese central bank last year stopped lending its Treasury holdings for fear the borrowers will go bankrupt, according to people familiar with the discussions -- a decision that disrupted the functioning of the Treasury market. Beijing rejected pleas by Washington to resume its lending of Treasurys, the people said. Meanwhile, China -- for years the largest foreign investor in bonds from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- has been sharply trimming its holdings of that debt. After making direct net purchases of $46.0 billion in the first half of 2008, China's government and companies were net sellers of $26.1 billion in the five months through November, according to the latest U.S. data. Weak demand for such debt from China and other foreign investors helped prompt the Federal Reserve to announce in November that it would take the step of buying up to $600 billion in debt from Fannie, Freddie and two other U.S. government-related mortgage businesses. While Chinese officials have generally been circumspect in public, some Chinese commentators have sharpened their rhetoric in recent weeks. Washington "should not expect continuous inflow of more cheap foreign capital to fund its one-after-another massive bailouts," said a December editorial in the government-owned, English-language China Daily. Officials at the newspaper said the commentary wasn't ordered by the government. Cash-rich Chinese financial institutions are under withering criticism at home for investments in the West that have lost money, such as a $5.6 billion stake in Morgan Stanley purchased by China's sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corp., 13 months ago. The U.S. company's shares have dropped around 60% since then. Chinese institutions have rebuffed entreaties to invest in struggling U.S. companies even as investors from Japan and the Middle East have stepped up. For years, Washington has pushed China to adopt an economic and financial system more like that in the U.S. -- arguing, for example, that China should liberalize capital flows in and out of the country. In many cases, China has moved more slowly than the U.S. desired. Beijing has resisted American pressure to let its currency appreciate in line with market forces, for example, which economists say has helped inflate China's trade surplus. But often, U.S. suggestions had a sympathetic audience among reformers in China's government, and many of China's financial overhauls in recent decades have been inspired by the U.S. model. Now, some of these changes, and their proponents, have lost credibility in China in the wake of the financial meltdown, and recently commentators and officials in China have been increasingly critical about Washington. Amid high-level Sino-U.S. economic talks in Beijing in early December, Chinese officials admonished the U.S. and Europe for their financial governance. Vice Premier Wang Qishan, China's top finance official, called on the U.S. to "take all necessary measures to stabilize its economy and financial markets to ensure the security of China's assets and investments in the U.S." A similar complaint was issued by Lou Jiwei, chairman of CIC, the government fund established in 2007 to seek higher returns on a $200 billion chunk of China's currency holdings. Mr. Lou said in a December speech that he has "lost confidence" because of inconsistent government policies concerning support for Western banks. "We don't know when these institutions will be invested in by their governments," he said. Fate of U.S. Investments CIC officials are especially sensitive about the fate of their U.S. investments because they have been under fire for the poor performance of earlier deals. CIC has sustained large paper losses on the $3 billion it invested in Blackstone Group LP in June 2007, as well as the Morgan Stanley stake. Staffed by officials, some western-educated, who have helped promote financial-market liberalization in China, CIC is also viewed by some Chinese as a symbol of the country's close financial ties to the U.S. -- another reason it has been in the crosshairs. Around October, a lengthy Chinese-language essay began circulating on the Internet excoriating Mr. Lou and other top CIC officials, along with Zhou Xiaochuan, China's central bank governor, for being too close to the U.S. and then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The diatribe quickly gained wide circulation in Chinese financial circles. One passage charged that Mr. Zhou "colluded with Henry Paulson to buy U.S. bonds, forced [Chinese yuan] appreciation, attached China's economy to the U.S. and broke China's economic independence." Chinese and U.S. interests remain deeply enmeshed. Washington's huge stimulus plans will result in even heavier borrowing, and, while rising savings in the U.S. could create more domestic capital to help fund that, Chinese lending will remain important. Japan investors, too, have been selling Fannie and Freddie debt and making other moves to limit their U.S. risk. An official at another Asian central bank in charge of managing hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign exchange reserves noted late last year that trading in some derivative instruments had factored in a slightly higher possibility of default by the U.S. government, though that prospect is still viewed by most investors as extremely low. The alarm for Chinese leaders started ringing loudly in July and August as problems deepened at Fannie and Freddie. Senior Chinese leaders, who hadn't been apprised in detail of how China's reserves were being invested, learned for the first time in published reports that the country's exposure to debt from those two alone totaled nearly $400 billion, say people familiar with the matter. Fearing that the U.S. government might not fully back the companies, China demanded and received regular briefings throughout the peak of the crisis from high-level Treasury Department officials, including Mr. Paulson, on the market for U.S. debt securities -- especially those of the mortgage giants. Mr. Paulson and other Treasury officials spoke regularly with Vice Premier Wang and other senior Chinese officials to soothe their concerns. Hit With Questions Chinese officials often bombarded their U.S. counterparts with questions, according to people who were present at meetings. While Mr. Paulson was in Beijing for the Olympics in August, he dined with Mr. Zhou, the central bank chief, at the Whampoa Club, an upscale restaurant that serves modern Chinese cuisine in a traditional courtyard building near the city's Financial Street. On Sept. 7, Mr. Paulson announced that the U.S. government would seize Fannie and Freddie, but Chinese officials remained concerned. At one briefing for Chinese officials to explain the change, said people present, they questioned and debated the meaning of nearly every line of the new Treasury plan. Then Washington allowed Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. to collapse, further shaking Beijing's faith. One casualty was CIC's nearly $5.4 billion investment in the Reserve Primary Fund, the money-market fund that "broke the buck" in September as a result of the Lehman collapse. CIC had placed money in the Primary Fund because "money market funds are supposed to be very safe," said a Chinese official in an interview late last year. But on Sept. 16, the Primary Fund's managers announced that they were delaying redemptions. CIC officials emailed Reserve asking to withdraw all of its money from the fund, and promptly received a reply agreeing to the request, says the Chinese official. CIC officials believed the agreement meant that CIC had become a creditor to the troubled fund, and therefore was entitled to all of its money. A Reserve spokeswoman says the company doesn't comment on individual clients. Later in the day on Sept. 16, Reserve announced that the Primary Fund's net asset value had fallen to 97 cents a share, below the standard $1.00 level. Reserve initially said redemption requests received before 3 p.m. that day would be honored in full, but has since said that the net asset value already was down to 99 cents a share by 11 a.m. As Reserve further delayed payments, CIC began to fear that it might not get all of its money. The Reserve issue "is causing a lot of concern with a lot of financial institutions in China," said the Chinese official. Some officials expected that the U.S. and its financial institutions would better protect China from loss. "If the U.S. is treating us this way, eventually that will be enough cause for concern in the stability of the [U.S.] system," the official said. A CIC spokeswoman declined to comment on the current status of the dispute. Write to Jason Dean at, James T. Areddy at and Serena Ng at

No comments: