Why the U.S. needs China

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — The United States has sneezed. And while it may be too strong to say that China has now caught a cold, it has, at the very least, come down with a bit of a runny nose.

And that’s not an encouraging sign for the U.S. economy.

China’s government reported on Monday that its economy grew 9% in the third quarter. That is, of course, still robust expansion by any measure.

But it is a cause for concern considering that China’s gross domestic product increased at a greater than 10% clip in the first two quarters of this year and has been growing at a double-digit pace annually since 2002.

The Chinese economy was expected to slow a bit following the Olympics in Beijing this past summer. But this is clearly more than a post-Olympic pullback.

It’s even more troubling when you take into account the fact that China is a big investor in U.S. stocks and bonds. The Chinese sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp. has stakes in U.S. financial firms Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500), Visa (V) and Blackstone (BX), for example.

And as I pointed out last week, foreign purchases of U.S. securities – with the notable exception of Treasurys – is starting to slow.

Simply put, a slowing Chinese economy is not good news for the United States. Consider another reason: China is an important customer of U.S. goods.

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce, exports to China increased 18% last year. And China is now the country’s third-largest export market. China surpassed Japan in 2007 and trails only Canada and Mexico.

Christian Broda, an economist with Barclays Capital, said in a research report last week that China helped keep the U.S. economy from slipping into a deeper recession in 2001 since it was just beginning to become a more active trading partner with the rest of the world at that time.

China was only added to the World Trade Organization in December 2001.

But Broda pointed out that China’s exposure to the global economy is now double what it was in 1998-2002 because of its more active role as an importer and exporter. In other words, it’s now too big to be immune from the financial crisis.

“We don’t expect China to provide a buffer this time,” Broda wrote. “As growth decelerates in the developed world, there is unlikely to be a region in emerging markets that will act as a natural countervailing force.”

To be sure, China’s economy is not going to grind to a halt. But even a marginal slowdown could hurt large U.S. firms. Many of them have been able to offset sluggish growth in the United States with sales to China and other developing markets.

And it’s not certain that China’s economy….

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