I thought that spending a week in Singapore might provide some respite from the euro-crisis which, as Paul Krugman wrote the other day, is now simultaneously boring and terrifying. But there is no getting away from it. Even the staid Straits Times, the local paper here, led on the euro yesterday. And at a dinner I went to last night – mixing Asians and Europeans, financiers and policymakers – the talk was mainly of Greece, Germany and the single currency.
Since it was a private dinner, unfortunately I have to be coy about the participants. But one intriguing idea that was discussed was whether China might come to Europe’s financial rescue? The thinking behind this is simple and rather obvious. It reminded me of the thief who, when asked why he kept robbing banks, replied – “Because that’s where the money is.” The answer to the question, why might the Europeans look to Beijing is similar? – because that’s where the money is. That $3 trillion worth of foreign reserves in China looks rather alluring viewed from Athens or Berlin.
There was hopeful talk that the Europeans might be able to create some sort of pan-European financial instrument -backed by the might of Germany – that offered a more attractive interest rate than China can get on its other assets (notably US Treasury bills), but that looked solid enough to inspire confidence in Beijing.
It is an interesting idea. However, it drew fire from both European and Asian participants. One European said that the geopolitical implications of Europe becoming dependent on Chinese finance were too enormous to contemplate (although arguably, the US has been pretty reliant on Chinese finance for some time). An Asian participant said that he didn’t think that the Chinese government was going to put a large part of their people’s hard-earned cash to work, saving Europeans who were too feckless to save themselves. That pile of money, he argued, is China’s rainy-day fund to splurge on domestic spending, if and when the country hits a domestic political or economic crisis.
Normally, when I come to Asia, somebody tells me that Europe is becoming an irrelevance in the modern world. Well, there is no doubt we are relevant now. But, unfortunately, not for a good reason.
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