Martin Wolf, one of my favorite economic commentators, recently wrote an update of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper (actually a cicada, but…) in the Financial Times.
In the original story, attributed to Aesop, the ant works all summer to store up food for the winter while the grasshopper plays. When the weather turns bad, the grasshopper asks the ant for aid. He is rebuked for his idleness and left to die.
In the Wolf version, there are industrious “ant” countries (China, Germany and Japan), which produce goods and export them to lazy “grasshopper” countries (like the US, UK and the PIGS) who dabble in activities like real estate, which by and large generate no economic return. (that is: if you build a factory, you can make stuff in it that you can sell at a profit. If you build a beach house, it just sits there. It’s like buying a very expensive home entertainment system.)
The grasshoppers get the money to do this by borrowing from the ants’ banks, using their real estate as collateral.
At some point, the ants figure out what’s going on and realize they’ve made a very bad deal. The grasshoppers are never going to repay and the collateral is not particularly useful. On occasion, the grasshopper economies weaken as real estate prices wobble and then fall. Does the grasshopper government learn the folly of its ways? No. It simply lowers interest rates and borrows more from the ants to pump up the real estate market and keep the party going a while longer.
The ants help out because they don’t want to admit that they’ve made all these horrible loans. So they end up throwing good money after bad.
In the Wolf fable, there are two sets of ants/grasshoppers: Germany/rest of the EU, and China/EU + US.
I think the grasshopper/ant metaphor is a very useful way of framing the structural problems that the US and Europe face today. In particular, it highlights the fact the Europe is in double trouble: it’s China’s largest trading partner, and the EU faces the internal Germany/Greece dilemma as well.
I think the story needs a couple of nuances to make it a better reflection of today’s global economic situation, though. For instance:
a post-WWII phenomenon
The first “grasshopper” was the US and the first “ants” were Japan and Europe. The original relationship benefitted the US, of course, but it was also essential in enabling the rest of the developed world to rebuild after the destruction of their industrial infrastructure during WWII. Two of todays ants were the initiators of this devastation.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunion of the two Germanys, that country faced enormous economic difficulties: the west’s outdated plant and high-cost labor, the pitiful state of the east after almost a half-century of Soviet rule, and the consequences of the inflated exchange rate at which the merger was done. So Germany really needed grasshopper counterparts to alleviate what would otherwise have been a decade of even greater misery.
not just good and evil
There’s a wider point. Like the sadist and the masochist (maybe not the best analogy, but the only one I can come up with at the moment), the relationship may not be healthy but both sides do get something out of it. The ants get technology transfer and the opportunity to radically raise their standard of living. The grasshoppers get a chance to invest directly in the fast-growing ant economy. They also get cheaper foreign-made goods.
China is a very unusual ant
For one thing, it’s much larger than any of the others.
It also doesn’t have the hangups of its fellow ants: Germany’s commitment to make the one-Europe project work, and Japan’s history of extreme deference to the wishes of the US as a result of having lost WWII.
China gets what’s going on.
To me, it gives every indication that it thinks it has gotten all the value it can out of the grasshopper/ant dynamic and is determined to move on. It has already started to convert its dollar foreign currency reserves into physical assets through foreign acquisitions by state-controlled companies. Unlike Japan, which has never wanted the yen to be a world currency, China is taking steps to make the renminbi a vehicle of exchange among emerging countries. It is also trying to grow its way out of its grasshopper problem by strengthening economic ties with other emerging nations. China won’t thereby reduce the size of its problem of being a creditor to grasshoppers, but it may be able to reduce the significance of these liabilities if it can expand its trade in a healthier way with non-grasshopper nations.