the visible hand

it is the theory which decides what can be observed – einstein

Be Nice to the Countries That Lend You Money

Posted by ecoshift on December 4, 2008

Be Nice to the Countries That Lend You Money” – The Atlantic (December 2008)

“In his first interview since the world financial crisis, Gao Xiqing, the man who oversees $200 billion of China’s $2 trillion in dollar holdings, explains why he’s betting against the dollar, praises American pragmatism, and wonders about enormous Wall Street paychecks. And he has a friendly piece of advice: ‘Be Nice to the Countries That Lend You Money’”

by James Fallows

Americans know that China has financed much of their nation’s public and private debt. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain generally agreed on the peril of borrowing so heavily from this one foreign source. For instance, in their final debate, McCain warned about the “$10 trillion debt we’re giving to our kids, a half a trillion dollars we owe China,” and Obama said, “Nothing is more important than us no longer borrowing $700billion or more from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia.” Their numbers on the debt differed, and both were way low. One year ago, when I wrote about China’s U.S. dollar holdings, the article was called “The $1.4 trillion Question.” When Barack Obama takes office, the figure will be well over $2 trillion.

During the late stages of this year’s campaign, I had several chances to talk with the man who oversees many of China’s American holdings. He is Gao Xiqing, president of the China Investment Corporation, which manages “only” about $200billion of the country’s foreign assets but makes most of the high-visibility investments, like buying stakes in Blackstone and Morgan Stanley, as opposed to just holding Treasury notes.

Gao, whom I mentioned in my article, would fit no American’s preexisting idea of a Communist Chinese official. He speaks accented but fully colloquial and very high-speed English. He has a law degree from Duke, which he earned in the 1980s after working as a lawyer and professor in China, and he was an associate in Richard Nixon’s former Wall Street law firm. His office, in one of the more tasteful new glass-walled high-rises in Beijing, itself seems less Chinese than internationally “fusion”-minded in its aesthetic and furnishings. Bonsai trees in large pots, elegant Japanese-looking arrangements of individual smooth stones on display shelves, Chinese and Western financial textbooks behind the desk, with a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. perched among the books. Two very large, very thin desktop monitors read out financial data from around the world. As we spoke, Western classical music played softly from a good sound system.

Gao dressed and acted like a Silicon Valley moneyman rather than one from Wall Street—open-necked tattersall shirt, muted plaid jacket, dark slacks, scuffed walking shoes. Rimless glasses. His father was a Red Army officer who was on the Long March with Mao. As a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, Gao worked on a railroad-building gang and in an ammunition factory. He is 55, fit-looking, with crew-cut hair and a jokey demeanor rather than an air of sternness.

His comments below are from our one on-the-record discussion, two weeks before the U.S. elections. As I transcribed his words, I realized that many will look more astringent on the page than they sounded when coming from him. In person, he seemed to be relying on shared experience in the United States—that is, his and mine—to entitle him to criticize the country the way its own people might. The conversation was entirely in English. Because Gao’s answers tended to be long, I am not presenting them in straight Q&A form but instead grouping his comments about his main recurring themes.

Does America wonder who its new Chinese banking overlords might be? This is what one of the very most influential of them had to say about the world financial crisis, what is wrong with Wall Street, whether one still-poor country with tremendous internal needs could continue subsidizing a still-rich one, and how he thought America could adjust to its “realistic” place in the world. My point for the moment is to convey what it is like to hear from such a man, rather than to expand upon, challenge, or agree with his stated views.


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