Earlier this month, Thomas Friedman wrote a column slamming Jim Chanos’s bear case on China.
It included the quintessentially awesome Friedman quote
First, a simple rule of investing that has always served me well: Never short a country with $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves.
Here’s a sample:
In response to Chanos’ claim Friedman made a number of very questionable statements about China. These are matters of dispute and although I think they are completely wrong, they are at least defensible. For example he says its true that there may have been risks of bubbles. “In the last few days, though, China’s central bank has started edging up interest rates and raising the proportion of deposits that banks must set aside as reserves — precisely to head off inflation and take some air out of any asset bubbles.”
Really? I think you have to be a tad credulous to believe that the RMB 7.5 trillion lending target for 2010 and the slightly higher interest rates represents taking air out of the asset bubble. I would argue that they simply mean that the astonishing rate at which they were pumping air into the bubble has moderated slightly, to merely excessive.
He also says:
Now take all this infrastructure and mix it together with 27 million students in technical colleges and universities — the most in the world. With just the normal distribution of brains, that’s going to bring a lot of brainpower to the market, or, as Bill Gates once said to me: “In China, when you’re one-in-a-million, there are 1,300 other people just like you.”
Aside from perhaps his overestimating the quality of the education system, this is very bad statistics, and perhaps shows how easily we can get intellectually overwhelmed by large numbers. If China indeed has the same distribution of geniuses, or talent, as other countries, the fact that it has so many people won’t make it richer (and what about India?). After all if you cut China into four countries, each country will have only one-fourth the number of geniuses. Does that really mean that the four countries together are stupider?
This is also an incredibly important point on the forex reserves question:
The idea that massive levels of reserves are a guarantor of economic stability is, in other words, based on a profound misunderstanding both of history and of the nature of reserves. Reserves of course are not useless as an enhancer of financial stability, but their use is for very specific forms of instability. Having large amounts of reserves relative to external claims protects countries from external debt crises and from currency crises.
Great, but neither Chanos, nor even the most pessimistic Sino-analyst, has ever said that these are the kinds of risks China faces today, any more than they were the risks faced by the US in the late 1920s or Japan in the late 1980s. The risks that China faces today (and the US in the late 1920s and Japan in the late 1980s) is of excessive domestic liquidity having fuelled asset and capacity bubbles, the latter requiring the uninterrupted ability of foreign countries to absorb via large and growing trade deficits. These risks include an explosion in domestic government debt directly and contingently through the banking system.
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