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China To EU: I Am Not Your Daddy

Will they or won’t they?  The question agitating world stock markets the last couple of sessions is whether China will help Europe avoid defaults by buying up the bonds of troubled countries.

During the current euro-crisis, many of the debtor countries have been persistently hopeful that an angel was going to descend from the sky and make all those nasty debts go poof.  China has been cast in the role of savior by various PIIGS; unlike those awful Anglo-Saxon economies China believes, allegedly, in a softer, more humane ‘social market’ system — and it has a lot of money.

First the Greeks and now the Italians have beaten a path to the golden east in search of no-strings attached, easy bailouts — apparently thinking that China might want to put hard cash on the table to win influence and friends in Europe, the center of the world.

Yesterday Beijing gave its response: no deal.  Premier Wen could not have been more clear: China will lend money at market rates on good security, and China stands ready to buy valuable properties at attractive prices.  In other words, if the transaction makes sense in that cold, hard, Anglo-Saxon penny pinching way, the Chinese will take a look.  Otherwise, no thank you.

China might be interested in a “strategic stake” in the Italian state owned oil company, for example, but it shows much less interest in an attractive portfolio of beautifully engraved Italian state bonds, suitable either for framing or for lining the bottom of a birdcage.

Everyone who has turned to China looking for softer loans and kinder words has ultimately made the same discovery: the Chinese, amazingly, are in this for the money.  China has worked very hard to accumulate its hard currency reserves, and its leadership is unwilling to squander that money on grandiose image-building projects abroad.  (At home, it’s a different story.)  Bribing the odd dictator, taking advantage of the political isolation of human-rights busting regimes to make commercially viable investments that others won’t touch, yes.  Throwing money away on charming Europeans because their manners are so good and their countries are so scenic: no.

Ultimately, China is going to have to move to a less tightfisted approach.  Chinese companies have been buying up oil fields, mines and other fixed assets around the world; China will soon discover that deals don’t always stick when the PR goes wrong.  What petty tyrants and thugs sell one day, they can nationalize the next — and sell again when a new pigeon comes along.  To own large fixed assets in someone else’s country is to become a prisoner of diplomacy and a practitioner of public relations.  The Chinese will worry more about their image as their investment portfolio grows.

But for now, China is hanging tough.  Berlusconi’s Italy doesn’t look like a particularly attractive credit risk, and the Chinese see no reason to spend their hard-earned renminbi to subsidize la dolce vita somewhere far far away.  At the right price, and if Italy and its colleagues can get their books in order, China would like nothing better to find some suitable investment vehicles to diversify its dollar-heavy portfolio.  A few modest purchases might reinforce the notion that China is a rising power with an increasingly global reach, and so pay off politically even if the economics don’t quite work.  But China does not yet feel rich enough to pay more for foreign securities than it thinks they are worth.

Perhaps it never will.

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  • Kris

    Europe turning to China for economic help? Pathetic! Next thing you know, they’ll be asking the US to shoulder their military burden…

  • Luke Lea

    They love to lecture. Reminds me of the scene in the last of the Rabbit series in which Rabbit’s son bankrupts the Toyota dealership with his coke habit. The Toyota representative comes to visit (this is back in the 1980’s), in the course of which he delivers a little lecture about how American has grown fat and lazy, needs to learn how to work again, etc.. Of course Updike gets it just right, very amusingly.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    China, oh how I love to hear them squeal about the Dollars they have overpaid for. What are they going to do? Stop manipulating their currency and kill their export economy? We have them by the short and curlies and they know it, that’s why they are squealing and kicking the can down the road in the hope that the horse will learn to sing. LOL

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