The Trump administration may be eyeing long-defaulted Chinese bonds as a weapon in its ongoing trade war with Beijing, according to people who hold the antique debt and say they’ve met with the president to discuss it.
Trump’s top trade warriors are “studying” the possibility of calling in century-old debts incurred by China before the nation went communist, according to a Bloomberg report published on Thursday. China doesn’t recognize the debt, of course, and decades of attempts to collect by owners of the aging bonds (which sell on eBay as collectors’ items) have amounted to naught, but with a full-blown economic battle between Washington and Beijing raging, desperate times may call for desperate measures.
China owes over $1 trillion, adjusted for inflation, interest and other fees, on the long-defaulted debts, according to Jonna Bianco, whose American Bondholders Foundation (ABF) represents holders of the seemingly worthless paper. Bianco has been pushing for 18 years to convince the US to force China to honor the certificates, roping a stable of former government officials into taking up the cause.
She has even met with Trump administration officials to discuss selling the debt to the US government in order to exchange it with China to pay off Washington’s mounting debts, among other possibilities – though administration officials declined to comment when asked about the matter by Bloomberg.
“What’s wrong with paying China with their own paper?” she asked rhetorically, noting the sum she calculated is roughly equal to China’s US Treasury holdings. Bianco claims to have met with Trump himself at his Bedminster, New Jersey golf course last year, as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin more recently, and says members of her ABF “team” met with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in April.
The fantastical plot has more than a few legal hangups. In addition to statutes of limitations, there is no hard-and-fast rule regarding whether governments inherit the debts of their predecessors following major political upheavals, particularly when nearly a century has elapsed since those debts were incurred. A 1979 case succeeded in bringing the Chinese government to court to defend itself against bondholders’ claims, but was ultimately lost as the judge ruled a 1976 law giving the US jurisdiction over the claims could not be applied retroactively.
A 2004 Supreme Court decision, however, ruled the law could be applied retroactively, and Duke University law professor Mitu Gulati told Bloomberg the paper represents “perfectly valid debts.” However, he stipulated, “I think everyone who works for Trump at the Treasury Department thinks this is loony.”
But hope springs eternal – so eternal, in fact, that former President George W. Bush’s spiritual adviser is in hot water with the Securities and Exchange Commission for duping senior citizens into “investing” in the certificates, having allegedly made at least $3.4 million by convincing just 29 investors the paper was worth “tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.” Some were so excited by the possibility of extracting money from the Chinese government that they liquidated their retirement savings.
Of course, if China were to call in the debts owed by the US, it would singlehandedly annihilate the American economy – and Washington couldn’t cry “political upheaval” or cite the passage of time as reasons not to pay up. While the trade war is not going well for the Trump administration at the moment, with the US apparently poised at the brink of a recession, things can always get worse.