It spent the past 30 years adopting the rules of capitalism. It transformed sleepy fishing villages into pulsating manufacturing metropolises. It opened its borders to multinational corporations. It became the world's factory, pumping out cheap goods for the likes of Nike
After all that, we are threatening to wipe out the value of those reserves by inflating away the value of the dollar. China is not happy.
Don't raise your voice at me
If you had an investment portfolio over the past four or five years, maybe you can empathize with China. Watching the value of your savings evaporate is not a pleasant experience. Especially when you thought you were doing everything right.
So you might excuse Luo Ping, director-general of China Banking Regulatory Commission, for his outburst in February when he admitted, "We hate you guys ... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys, but there is nothing much we can do."
You brought this on yourself
Now, to be honest, China isn't really an innocent victim in this story. The phenomenal economic growth in the country over the past three decades was driven by astounding export growth, powered by cheap labor and, importantly, an artificially cheap currency.
By selling mountains of cheap goods to companies like Bed Bath and Beyond
But if the yuan were to appreciate, China's exports would become less attractive, and the spectacular growth would stall. So China's government took steps, such as printing more money and instituting currency restrictions, to keep the yuan weak in relation to the dollar (and the euro). So if the U.S. cranks up the printing press, devaluing the dollar, it not only reduces the value of China's reserves, but it means China has to increase its efforts to keep its exports cheap -- hence China's irritation.
Not completely helpless
Despite Luo Ping's apparent despair, there are some things China can do -- and has been doing -- to lighten its exposure to the potential weakening of the dollar. The government has been transforming dollars into hard assets by buying up now-cheap commodities like iron ore, copper, molybdenum, and oil to prepare for further expansion once the economy kicks up again.
Chinese companies have been in on the act, as well, some more successfully than others. The recent failure of Aluminum Corp. of China to acquire an 18% stake in minerals giant Rio Tinto is countered by China Minmetals' acquisition of the majority of OZ Minerals' assets.
China's major cash-rich state-owned oil companies, PetroChina, Sinopec, and CNOOC, have been taking advantage of the drop in oil prices to acquire oil and natural gas assets around the world.
Looking inward for the way forward
While these acquisitions help position China for future growth, they can only use up so much of that $2 trillion. The long-term answer to China's problem is to wean itself off exports and its dependence on foreign consumers, which requires the growth of domestic demand.
China is home to 1.3 billion consumers -- the largest single pool in the world. However, domestic consumption makes up less than 40% of China's gross domestic product, compared with nearly 70% for the United States. If China wants to draw down its dramatic exposure to the dollar, the proportion of the economy derived from domestic spending will have to rise.
As the government increases domestic consumption, the companies that benefit most will be those targeting Chinese consumers. But often, these companies are small and fly under the radar of most investors, or are viewed with skepticism because of concerns about Chinese regulations and reporting standards.
Fortunately, the Motley Fool Global Gains team just returned from China, where it investigated several of these companies and gathered firsthand knowledge of their markets, operations, and management teams. To get the inside track on finding the Chinese Starbucks
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This article was originally published on Aug. 15, 2009. It has been updated.
Nate Weisshaar fondly remembers his He-Man action toys, but does not own any of the stocks mentioned above. CNOOC is a Global Gains selection. Bed Bath and Beyond, Hasbro, and Starbucks are Stock Advisor recommendations. Starbucks is also an Inside Value choice. The Motley Fool owns shares of Hasbro and Starbucks. The Fool's disclosure policy still says Go-Bots were cooler than Transformers.