Question one: Which foreign country will have the greatest effect on our economy and national security over the next 20 years?
I'd submit that it's the country with the world's largest population, the fastest-growing economy, a seat on the UN Security Council, and nearly $2 trillion in reserves that it's using to buy up natural-resource assets worldwide. Yet this country was hardly mentioned at all during our recent presidential election. According to my count, during the three televised presidential debates, Barack Obama mentioned the country seven times and John McCain just six.
Meanwhile, Joe the Plumber, a man who will have zero effect on our economy and national security over the next 20 years, was mentioned nine times by both presidential candidates in the last debate alone.
Joe the who?
The country, you may have guessed, is China, and its virtual invisibility during the election shows just how much Americans are underestimating this emerging giant. Consider, for example, the future of energy. According to the 2008 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, China's energy consumption increased by 7.7% in 2007 and accounted for half of global consumption growth.
And while state-run oil giant CNOOC
There's similar concern in the minerals space. Multinational miners such as Rio Tinto
China, in other words, is an emerging global giant. How could two presidential candidates not recognize that fact and take some kind of stand?
Of course, this leads to my second question: Where do you stand on China?
Orange chicken is OK, but ...
If you're like most Americans I've talked to, you haven't given China much thought. You're not learning Chinese, and you're not investing in the country. You may also be suspicious of China and resentful that its low-cost manufacturing environment has fundamentally altered the labor landscape here in the United States.
If that does describe you, then you'll be heartened to hear that Columbia University professor and investing guru Bruce Greenwald -- when he stopped by to speak at our office the other day -- basically predicted an imminent Chinese economic collapse. I, for one, don't agree with him, but his opinion isn't without merit.
Let me try to do Professor Greenwald justice
The good professor kicked off his talk by comparing the current economic downturn with the Great Depression. He noted that during the Depression, the world experienced significant productivity gains as jobs disappeared and enterprises strove to become more efficient. That was particularly true in the agricultural industry in the 1930s, where jobs that were lost to tractors and tills never came back.
And according to Professor Greenwald, today's equivalent of the agricultural industry in the 1930s is manufacturing. As unemployment spikes, productivity will increase as processes are automated, and millions of workers in the manufacturing sector will be left unemployed for good.
The good news for the United States is that manufacturing is not a significant part of the economy. Manufacturing, however, is an enormous part of the economies of Southeast Asia and particularly of China, where more than 60,000 factories are reported to have been shut down in 2008. These newly unemployed Chinese now threaten to undermine the country's political stability and act as an enormous drag on the economy.
Why, then, does your humble author disagree?
That ain't a rosy picture, to be sure, and if it's true, then you can feel good about ignoring China. But you should also know that the powers-that-be in China do have some resources at their disposal to avert disaster.
First and foremost among them is the country's $2 trillion in reserves. China has already announced plans to use these funds to cut taxes, build infrastructure, and expand health-care coverage -- three moves that will help keep Chinese citizens employed and give them the confidence to spend some of their savings. (Unlike most Americans, the Chinese tend to hoard their wages.)
Through tax incentives and loans from state-run banks, the government is also aiding businesses that are designing and making proprietary-branded goods in China, for China. In fact, there's growing "Buy China" sentiment in China that benefits domestic brands such as Air China, Li Ning, Baidu
Finally, China can retain some of its low-cost manufacturing edge -- and slow its economic transition -- by gradually moving enterprises to the west of the country, where labor costs are lower. This is not a permanent solution, but it could help stave off the Greenwaldian collapse.
At Motley Fool Global Gains, we believe that China will eventually be the world's largest economy. The people are too enterprising and the momentum too great for it to be otherwise. There will, of course, be growing pains along the way, but that's no excuse for investors or presidential candidates to ignore the country altogether.
If you're convinced and want to learn more about investing in China, you might want to read about one heckuva cheap Chinese stock.
That was this week in the emerging markets. See you next time.
Tim Hanson is the co-advisor of Motley Fool Global Gains. He's learning Chinese and does not own shares of any company mentioned. CNOOC and New Oriental are Global Gains recommendations. Petrobras is an Income Investor pick. Baidu is a Rule Breakers selection. The Fool's disclosure policy has nothing against orange chicken, but China's Chinese food is better.