We can be reasonably certain that Chinese government officials approaching middle age have been heavily westernised through their education. Nowhere is this likely to matter more than in the fields of finance and economics. In these disciplines there is perhaps a division between them and the old guard, exemplified and fronted by President Xi. The grey-beards who guide the National Peoples Congress are aging, and the brightest and best of their successors understand economic analysis differently, having been tutored in Western universities.
It has not yet been a noticeable problem in the current, relatively stable economic and financial environment. Quiet evolution is rarely disruptive of the status quo, and so long as it reflects the changes in society generally, the machinery of government will chug on. But when (it is never “if”) the next global credit crisis develops, China’s ability to handle it could be badly compromised.
This article thinks through the next credit crisis from China’s point of view. Given early signals from the state of the credit cycle in America and from growing instability in global financial markets, the timing could be suddenly relevant. China must embrace sound money as her escape route from a disintegrating global fiat-money system, but to do so she will have to discard the neo-Keynesian economics of the West, which she has adopted as the mainspring of her own economic advancement.
With Western-educated economists imbedded in China’s administration, has China retained the collective nous to understand the flaws, limitations and dangers of the West’s fiat money system? Can she build on the benefits of the sound-money approach which led her to accumulate gold, and to encourage her citizens to do so as well?
China’s economic advisors will have to display the courage to drop the misguided economic policies and faux statistics by which she will continue to be judged by her Western peers. If she faces up to the challenge, China should emerge from the next credit crisis in a significantly stronger position than the West, for which such a radical change in economic thinking undertaken willingly is impossible to imagine.
Post-Mao Financial and Monetary Strategy
Following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the Chinese leadership faced a primal decision over her destiny. With Mao’s demise, the icon that forcibly united over forty ethnic groups was gone. It was the end of an era of Chinese history, and she had to embrace the future with a new approach. Failure to do so risked the fragmentation of the state through civil disobedience and would probably have ended in a multi-ethnic civil war.
Wise heads, which had observed the remarkable successes of Hong Kong and Singapore being driven by Chinese diasporas, prevailed. It was clear that in order to survive, the Communist Party would have to embrace capitalism while retaining political control. Mao’s nominated successor, Hua Gofeng, lasted no more than a year, being promoted upstairs out of harm’s way. It was his successor, Deng Xiaoping, who reinvented China. In the late-1970s, Deng, hating the Soviets for their involvement in Vietnam, reaffirmed the USSR as China’s main adversary. At this crucial point in China’s pupation she secured a strategic relationship with America by sharing a common enemy.
The seeds for the relationship with America had already been sown by Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972, so the Americans were prepared to help ease China into their world. Through the 1980s, the relationship opened China up to inward investment by American and other Western corporations, and there was a rush to establish new factories, taking advantage of a cheap diligent labour force and the lack of restrictive regulations and planning laws.
By 1983 it was clear that China’s central bank, the Peoples Bank (PBOC), had a growing currency problem on its hands, because it bought all the foreign exchange against which it issued yuan for domestic circulation. Inward capital flows were added to by the policy of managing the yuan exchange rate lower in order to stimulate economic development. Accordingly, as well as foreign currency management the PBOC was tasked with the sole responsibility of the state’s gold and silver purchases as a policy offset.1 The public was still banned from owning both metals.
In those days, China’s gold objective was simply to diversify her reserves. The leadership grasped the difference between gold and fiat money, just as the Arabs had in the 1970s, and the Germans had in the 1950s. It was prudent to hold some physical gold. Furthermore, Marxist economic theory taught in the state universities impressed on students that western capitalism was certain to fail, and that being the case, their fiat currencies would become worthless as well.
China’s secret accumulation of gold in the 1980s was also an insurance against future economic instability, which is why it was spread round the institutions that were fundamental to the state, such as the Peoples Liberation Army, the Communist Party and the Communist Youth League. Only a relatively small portion was declared as monetary reserves.
In the 1990s, inward capital flows were beginning to be supplemented by exports, and a new wealthy Chinese class was emerging. The PBOC still had an embarrassment of dollars. Fortunately, gold was unloved in Western markets, and bullion was readily available at declining prices. The PBOC was able to accumulate gold secretly on behalf of the state’s institutions in large quantities. But there was a new strategic reason emerging for buying gold, following the collapse of the USSR.
The end of the USSR in 1989 meant it was no longer America’s and China’s common enemy, altering the strategic relationship between the two. This led to a gradual change in China’s foreign relationships, with America becoming increasingly concerned at China’s emergence as a super-power, threatening her own global dominance.
These shifting relationships changed China’s gold policy from one where gold acted as a sort of general insurance policy against monetary unknowns, to its accumulation as a strategic asset.
Bullion was freely available, partly because Western central banks were selling it in a falling market. The notorious sale of the bulk of Britain’s gold by Gordon Brown at the bottom of the market was the public face of Western central banks’ general disaffection with gold. China was on the other side of the deal. Between 1983 and 2002, mine supply added 42,460 tonnes to above-ground stocks, when the West were net sellers.
The evidence of China’s all-out gold policy is plain to see. She invested heavily in gold mining and is now the largest national miner of gold by far. Chinese government refiners were also importing gold and silver doré to process and keep, and they set a new four-nines standard for one kilo bars. Today, China has a tightening grip on the entire global bullion market.
A decision was taken in 2002 by China to allow the public to buy gold, and the benefits of ownership were widely promoted by state media. We can be certain this decision was taken only after the State had accumulated sufficient bullion for its supposed needs.
China’s public has accumulated approximately 15,000 tonnes to date, net of scrap recycling, based on deliveries out of the Shanghai Gold Exchange’s vaults. Given the public is still banned from owning foreign currency, gold ownership should continue to be popular as an alternative store of value to the yuan, and currently between 150-200 tonnes are being delivered from SGE vaults every month.
Other than declared reserves, it is not known how much gold the state owns. But assessing capital flows from 1983 and allowing for the availability of physical bullion through mining supply and the impact of the 1980-2002 bear market, the PBOC could have accumulated as much as 15,000-20,000 tonnes before the public were permitted to buy gold. If so, it would represent approximately 10% of those capital flows at contemporary gold prices.
The truth is unknown, but we can be sure gold has become a strategic asset for China and its people.
China must have always had an expectation that in the long-term gold will become money again, presumably as backing for the yuan. Otherwise, why go to such lengths to monopolize the global bullion market?
But there is a problem. As time goes on and a newer, western-educated generation of leaders emerges, will they still fully recognize the value of gold beyond being simply a strategic asset, and will they recognize the real reasons behind the West’s economic failures, given they have successfully embraced its economic and monetary policies?
Were the Chinese to take a turn toward hard-money policies, it is hard to see how the US could match a sound-money plan from China. Furthermore, the US Government’s finances are already in very poor shape and a return to sound money would require a reduction in government spending that all observers can agree is politically impossible. This is not a problem the Chinese government faces.
Whether China implements such a plan, one thing is for sure: the next credit crisis will happen, and it will have a major impact on all nations operating with fiat money systems. The interest rate question, because of the mountains of debt owed by governments and consumers, will have to be addressed, with nearly all Western economies irretrievably ensnared in a debt trap. The hurdles faced in moving to a sound monetary policy appear to be simply too daunting to be addressed.
Ultimately, a return to sound money is a solution that will do less damage than fiat currencies losing their purchasing power at an accelerating pace. Think Venezuela, and how sound money would solve her problems. But that path is blocked by a sink-hole that threatens to swallow up whole governments. Trying to buy time by throwing yet more money at an economy suffering a credit crisis will only destroy the currency. The tactic worked during the Lehman crisis, but it was a close-run thing. It is unlikely to work again.