Geithner Tells China Its Holdings Are Safe

Timothy F. Geithner, right, at his meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Geithner pushed for more cooperation between the two countries.
Timothy F. Geithner, right, at his meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Geithner pushed for more cooperation between the two countries. (By Andy Wong -- Associated Press)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha and Annys Shin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

BEIJING, June 1 -- U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner on Monday sought to reassure China, America's biggest creditor, that its hundreds of billions of dollars of holdings in U.S. government debt remain safe, even as investors dumped Treasurys amid signs that the global recession is easing.

In recent months, Chinese officials have worried publicly that massive U.S. spending could undermine the value of Treasury securities. Geithner, on a two-day visit to China, responded Monday by pledging to reduce the U.S. budget deficit and gradually eliminate "the extraordinary government support" the Obama administration has put in place.

"The United States is committed to a strong and stable international financial system," Geithner said in a speech at Peking University, where he studied Chinese as an undergraduate in the 1980s. "The Obama administration fully recognizes that the United States has a special responsibility to play in this regard, and we fully appreciate that exercising this special responsibility begins at home."

China is by far the largest purchaser of U.S. Treasurys, and about 82 percent of its $2 trillion of foreign reserves are estimated to be in dollars. In March, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said he was "concerned about the safety of our assets," and since then other high-level Chinese officials have been pushing for alternatives to the dollar as a reserve currency.

Such comments have made investors around the world nervous about whether there will continue to be sufficient demand for U.S. debt at a time when the federal government needs to sell record amounts of it to finance itself. Under President Obama's budget, the U.S. government would have to borrow more than $4 trillion over the next five years.

So far, the government has had no trouble finding buyers. Central banks around the world continue to snap up Treasurys. The Federal Reserve has also said it will buy up to $300 billion in long-term Treasury notes to help keep consumer borrowing costs down.

But as the economy recovers, investors could abandon the safety of U.S. Treasurys for the bigger returns -- and risks -- of the stock market. That would make it more expensive for the U.S. government to borrow money.

Yesterday's sell-off stemmed from better-than-expected economic data on U.S. and Chinese manufacturing and U.S. personal income. Treasury prices plummeted, boosting yields on 10-year bonds by the highest margin in eight months.

Meanwhile, improving global economic conditions have sparked fears of inflation. Some economists and investors warn that government spending and the Federal Reserve's creation of up to $1 trillion in new money to thaw credit markets could cause prices to rise in a few years, leading investors to offload Treasurys.

Geithner's remarks on the need for fiscal discipline were designed to allay fears of inflation.

In meetings with Chinese government officials and in his public remarks, the Treasury secretary was careful to characterize China as a partner rather than a country that needs to be lectured. He called for a greater role for China in international financial institutions and for China to continue to collaborate with the United States to lead the world out of recession.

"The world is going through an exceptionally challenging period now, and I think the world has a huge stake in our two countries working closely together to lay a foundation for recovery," Geithner said in introductory remarks during a meeting with Vice Premier Wang Qishan.

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