US debt ceiling: How risky for China and Japan?

A US default might lead China to buy American companies instead of American bonds, some analysts say.

Issei Kato/Reuters
The governor of the Bank of Japan Haruhiko Kuroda (c.) attends a news conference at BOJ headquarters in Tokyo Friday, Oct. 4, 2013. Mr. Kuroda warned on Friday that a default could hinder Japan's economic recovery after two decades of stagnation.

As the world contemplates the prospect that the United States might, for the first time, default on its debt, few countries have more to fear from the potentially calamitous consequences than Asian giants China and Japan.

They are the two largest US creditors, holding nearly $2.5 trillion in US Treasury bonds between them. They are also the second and third largest economies in the world, with much to lose from the collapse of world trade that experts warn could follow a default-induced freeze in global credit markets.

And they are not hiding their feelings. China’s deputy finance minister, Zhu Guangyao, warned at a press conference Monday that “safeguarding the debt is of vital importance to the economy of the US and the world.”

“That is the United States’ responsibility,” he said, urging Washington to take steps before Oct. 17 to forestall a default.  

In Tokyo, meanwhile, officials held several emergency telephone conferences with their US Treasury Department counterparts on Monday, according to the Nikkei Business Daily, a leading publication on Japanese economics. 

Policymakers and analysts in Asia do not know what to expect in the event of a US debt default. “Honestly, nobody really knows what the impact on financial markets would be because there is no precedent,” says Andrew Batson, an economist at Dragonomics consultancy in Beijing.

A threat to Japan's recovery

Though Japanese officials are optimistic that the standoff in Washington will be resolved quickly, that is largely “because otherwise the situation could get so tricky that they don’t want to think about it,” says Martin Schulz, chief economist at the Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo.
The governor of the Bank of Japan, Haruhiko Kuroda, warned that a default could hinder Japan’s economic recovery after two decades of stagnation.
“If this [budget deadlock] continues for a long time, it could destabilize financial markets and worsen sentiment,” Mr. Kuroda told reporters in Tokyo Friday.

The threat of a US default comes at a pivotal moment in Japan’s economic recovery under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office last year promising to pull the country out of its deflationary spiral. He has presided over three straight quarters of economic growth as exporters benefited from a sharp fall in the value of the yen, boosting their profits overseas.
Japan’s recovery could be undermined, though, if a debt crisis in the US prompts investors to drop the dollar and head for the “safe haven” of the yen, in turn driving up the value of the Japanese currency.
On Tuesday, the yen rose to an eight-week high. “I think the Abe government has every reason to fear a US default,” says Tobias Harris, a Washington-based Japan specialist at Teneo, an independent advisory firm.
“Beyond the risk to Japanese government holdings of US debt, the flight to safety by investors will obviously result in a stronger yen, both hurting exporters and undermining the push to end deflation.”

China and the dollar

Beijing, too, is worried more about the likelihood that a debt default would devalue the dollar than it is about the interest or principal payments it might lose in a default, which in any case China would expect to be temporary.

A devaluation would eat into the value of Beijing’s investments in US Treasury bonds, which stood at $1.28 trillion last July, according to the US Treasury. “That would be a big problem for my country,” says Huang Weiping, professor of economics at Beijing’s Renmin University.

A devalued dollar would also make imports from China more expensive and less easy to sell in the US, which is China’s second largest foreign market, Professor Huang points out.

In fact, selling anything internationally would be a problem if the US Treasury Department’s warnings of catastrophe proved accurate. Global trade collapsed in 2008 after the financial crisis froze credit markets, and both consumers and businesses cut back on purchases.

“A default would be a very great shock to the world economy,” says Huang. “China’s position in the world economy means it would also be a great shock to its economic development, especially to its trade and investment.”

As the largest foreign holder of US debt, China is in a difficult spot. It has accumulated the world’s largest hoard of foreign reserves, about $3.5 trillion, by exporting more than it imported year after year, and because the Chinese government bought exporters’ dollars from them in a bid to keep the Chinese currency, the renminbi, competitively low.

Beijing then invested those dollars in US Treasury bonds, the easiest and safest place to put them. “China is joined at the hip to the dollar and to the US debt market, which is the only place large enough to absorb all the dollars they have accumulated,” says Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist at Silvercrest Asset Management in New York and former professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing.

“They are along for the ride, wherever that ride leads,” he adds.

Buying businesses instead of bonds

The psychological shock of a default, however, could lead to major changes in the longer term, predicts Xiang Songzuo, chief economist at the state-owned Agricultural Bank of China.

“Even a temporary default would have a very deep impact on the Chinese authorities’ thinking” about the creditworthiness of the US government, Mr. Xiang believes.

And while diversifying official investments might be hard, given the continuing crisis in the eurozone and poor returns in risky emerging markets, a US default might lead China to buy American companies instead of American bonds, Xiang suggests.

“It would make the government change the way it manages foreign exchange,” he says, by reforming Chinese capital markets. Instead of soaking up private companies’ dollars, the government would encourage the firms to invest them abroad themselves.

“America would have to open up more to Chinese investment,” Xiang says. “Even a temporary default could have quite a significant effect on US-China relations.”

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