Image by chinadialogue.net via Flickr
Posted on Saturday, March 14th, 2009
Premier Wen knows how to get attention; all he has to do is raise a few doubts about China’s ongoing willingness to keep on buying US assets. The FT, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times — not to mention the White House — all took note.
Wen’s comments generally have been interpreted as a warning that China might lose confidence in US Treasuries. But the quotes that I have seen refer to China’s concerns about the safety of all of its investments in the US, not just its investments in US Treasuries. The New York Times reports that Wen said:
“We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.” He called on the United States to “maintain its good credit, to honor its promises and to guarantee the safety of China’s assets.”
I don’t doubt for a second that China is starting to worry that the scale of US issuance of Treasuries will reduce what might be called the scarcity value of China’s existing Treasury portfolio; creditors, after all, generally think debtors should limit the amount of new debt they take on. But I am not convinced that Wen’s comments were driven entirely by China’s worries about its Treasury portfolio either.
Remember, that Treasuries account for only about half of China’s US portfolio. China likely has about $750 billion Treasuries. But it also has around $500 billion of Agencies. It could have about $150 billion of US corporate bonds. It probably has invested in a range of money market funds, not just reserve primary. And China had about $100 billion in US stocks in the middle of 2008 — though those stocks are now worth substantially less.