The threat of Trump going from a trade spat to a full blown trade war with China has produced what Lamber would call an overly dynamic situation, so I’ll offer only a few observations. For instance, after Trump warned China that he planned to hit another $200 billion of Chinese goods with tariffs if they responded in kind to the US assigning tariffs to $50 billion of Chinese products, Trump upped the ante and said he would slap tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese exports if China didn’t back down.
The trade war-mongers are in the driver’s seat. From the Wall Street Journal:
The White House’s tough stance represents the ascendancy, for now, of trade hawks in the administration, particularly White House senior trade adviser Peter Navarro and U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer…
“It’s clear that China has much more to lose” than the U.S. from a trade fight, said Mr. Navarro.
Mr. Lighthizer said additional tariffs wouldn’t be imposed until the U.S. picked the products, and received industry comment, a process that will take months and leaves open the possibility of additional negotiations. But so far there is no indication that such talks are on the horizon, and the Trump administration is signaling that it is increasingly confident of achieving goals through a dramatically more confrontational approach to China…
Next up from the administration is a plan to halt Chinese investment in U.S. technology, due to be released by the Treasury Department by June 30….
Mr. Trump has backed away from threats before….In April, Mr. Trump threatened a dramatic increase in tariffs on Chinese goods, but didn’t follow through. Instead, he approved negotiations Mr. Mnuchin led to get China to buy more U.S. goods and make changes to its tariffs and other trade barriers. That led to a temporary reprieve in the tensions as the two sides sought to negotiate a truce.
The White House has since judged those efforts a failure, especially after Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Trump were criticized by cable TV hosts and some lawmakers of being weak on China. During a June trade mission to China by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Beijing offered to buy nearly $70 billion in U.S. farm, manufacturing and energy products if the Trump administration abandoned tariff threats. Mr. Trump rejected that offer as another empty promise.
Trump’s negotiating strategy, if you can call it that, appears unlikely to work with China. If one were to try to ascribe logic to Trump picking and then escalating a fight with China, it is presumably in the end to bring them to the negotiating table. But China is not North Korea, where the US threatened the Hermit Kingdom with nuclear devastation and Kim Jong Un with being the next Gaddafi and then dialed the bluster way down as China pushed and South Korea pulled North Korea to the negotiating table. And the good luck of the Olympics being in South Korea facilitated the process.
One could argue that all of the theatrics was to enable Trump to talk with Kim Jong Un and not look like a wus.
With China, Trump’s escalation to threatening another $200 billion of Chinese goods after his initial $50 billion shot is a reaction to China going into tit for tat mode as opposed to negotiating. This should not be a surprise. The more detailed press reports were making clear that China was initially not engaging with the US (as in making clear that they weren’t receptive to US demands and accordingly weren’t deploying meaningful resources to talks).
Even if China incurs meaningful economic costs in hitting back at the US, politically it’s a no brainer. China’s sense of itself as the power that will displace the US means it’s unacceptable to be bullied. China has been bizarrely sensitive to slights, for instance, lashing out during the 2007 IPCC negotiations and getting testy when the US put countervailing duties on a mere $224 million of goods. Recall that when the US put sanctions on Russia, its strategists seemed to genuinely believe that Russians would rise up and turf Putin out. Instead, his popularity ratings rose and even the Moscow intelligentsia rallied to support him.
Oh, and while we are speaking about North Korea, Kim Jong Un is in Beijing . It’s not hard to get the message: there’s no reason for China to play nicely in the face of US trade brinksmanship.
Trump appears to be relying on the idea that since the US imports more than China exports, we can do more damage to them in a tariff game of chicken. On the one hand, as Marshall Auerback has pointed out, in trade wars, the creditor nation, which would be China, typically fares worse than the debtor nation. However, China can do a lot a damage to US companies in China. The US has long had a policy of promoting the interests of US multinationals based on the claim that deeper trade relations would reduce the odds of war and make countries more disposed towards democracy. And when “free trade” ideology got a life of its own, economists and pundits regularly treated the idea of trying to protect domestic jobs as retrograde, even when many of our trade partners negotiated their deals with that consideration in mind.
American businesses from Apple Inc. and Walmart Inc. to Boeing Co. and General Motors Co. all operate in China and are keen to expand. That hands Xi room to impose penalties such as customs delays, tax audits and increased regulatory scrutiny if Trump delivers on his threat of bigger duties on Chinese trade. U.S. shares slumped Tuesday as part of a broad sell-off in global markets in response to Trump’s threat.
The total amount of U.S. goods exports to China only amounted to $130 billion last year, meaning Trump’s potential tariffs on $250 billion or more of Chinese imports can’t be matched, at least directly. But if you measure both exports and sales of U.S. companies inside China, the U.S. has a surplus of $20 billion with China, according to Deutsche Bank AG….
One advantage of this tactic for Xi is that this time the numbers are on his side, as U.S. investment in China is far larger than the reverse. American companies had $627 billion in assets and $482 billion in sales in China in 2015, compared to just $167 billion in U.S. assets and $26 billion in U.S. sales for Chinese companies….
A change in trade priorities to focus on domestic employment isn’t nuts. It’s hard to know what Trump is trying to achieve as he calls for China to reduce its trade deficit by $200 billion. Given that the Administration said it will focus on the sectors depicted as priorities in China’s “Made-in-China 2025” plans in next round to tariff targets, China has good reason to think Trump’s real aim is to check its rise as a superpower.
Even though Trump is giving trade negotiations a bad name, there’s every reason to give domestic employment higher priority in trade negotiation. The reason Trump is so fond of tariffs is that they are a weapon he can deploy quickly and unilaterally, while negotiations and WTO cases take time. And even though the pundit class likes to decry manufacturing as oh-so-20th century, Ford’s Rouge plant employed more people than Apple does in the entire US. Restoring infrastructure would create a lot of employment, as would increasing domestic manufacturing.
But the US has eliminated the supervisor and middle managers that once ran operations like these. If we were to seek to build some areas of manufacturing, the US would have to engage in industrial policy, which is something we do now, but only by default, with the defense industry, financial services, health care, housing, and higher education among the favored sectors. So given our political constraints, it’s hard to see how we get there from here.
Mr. Market is anxious. Anxious is well short of panicked. Chinese stocks took the worst hit, but the latest round of threats took 4% off the Shanghai composite, taking it back to its level of 20 months ago. Chinese indexes were mixed today. By contrast, the Dow was down 1.15% and the S&P 500, 0.4%.
Having said that, the Fed is in a tightening cycle and stock valuations already looked pretty attenuated. Trade tensions and the uncertainty over how the threat to global supply chains will play out may lead investors to curb their enthusiasm, particularly if the Trump initiative starts looking less like another fit of pique and more like a change in the rules of the game that looks unlikely to work out well.