Weaponizing the Dollar

Weaponizing the Dollar by  by The Automatic Earth

Don’t worry, we’re still talking virus, just from a slightly different angle. I was going to do something completely different, but then I saw an article at the South China Morning Post (SCMP) today that made me think “I don’t think that’s true”, realizing that at the same time many people would think it is.

Foreign holdings of US Treasuries are a misty environment for perhaps not just many, but most people. What triggered the SCMP piece is Trump’s threat, if it was ever meant to be one, to default on US dollar-denominated debt owned by China. Which by one estimate consists for about 70% of Treasuries.

And there are entire choirs full of voices willing to tell us that China can simply start dumping the -estimated- $1.2 trillion in Treasuries it holds, and threaten if not end the USD reserve currency status that way, if the US doesn’t “behave”. There’s little doubt that China would want this, but that doesn’t make the idea any more realistic.

What should give that away is, how easy can we make it for you, that it hasn’t done so yet. And now a conflict over the origin of a virus would trigger this? On a side note: if that origin is somewhere in China, even if it’s unintentional, how could Beijing possibly “admit” to it? How could it ever settle the lawsuits that would ensue?

No, the US cannot default on China’s holdings of its Treasuries. That alone would be a larger threat to the reserve currency status than anything anybody else could do, other then nuclear war. But at the same time, China cannot dump its Treasury holdings. because that would hurt … China.

And don’t forget that China and the US are in a symbiotic relationship of chief seller and chief buyer. Drastic changes in that relationship would -almost- certainly lead to consequences that neither can fully oversee, and that could hurt either or both tremendously.

Where are the US going to buy what they now buy from China? Who is China going to sell to what they today sell to the US? The countries are for all intents and purposes Siamese twins. Whatever can change, can only do so gradually. And even then.

No matter how much I read about it (a lot), this particular field is still not my expertise. But when I read the SCMP piece, it reminded me right off the bat of something that Michael Pettis, professor of finance at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets, wrote on May 28 2019, in an update of an article he wrote in January 2018 (all pre-virustime).

I liked Michael’s take from the moment it was published, because I learned a lot. I think you might too. I can’t do this without some elaborate quotes, but at least that will make me shut up a little. Please bear with me. I don’t find the SCMP piece all that interesting, but it’s good as a failing counterweight to Pettis.

With all that in mind, let’s take the SCMP piece first:

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