Of US-China Trade Wars

Before today’s post, I would like to list the websites that I find critical to staying recent on the Chinese economy. I have taken graphs and data from them at various points in my blog:

http://carnegieendowment.org/chinafinancialmarkets

http://www.baldingsworld.com/

https://sinocism.com/

https://ftalphaville.ft.com/

http://blogs.cfr.org/setser/

Tariffs, Trade Wars, and Confusion

Donald Trump is now the President Elect of the United States of America. Although he lost the American popular vote, Trump, a Republican, was able to win the presidency through securing traditionally Democratic states, the Rust Belt, of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Trade was the deciding issue.

asian-surpluses

Trade imbalance from Asian economies are forced on America, resulting in asset inflation

Indeed, international trade is now dominating headlines, and Trump, who is still days away from assuming his position in the White House, is already being touted as ‘tough on China.’ The economic discourse regarding Trump’s promise to label China a currency manipulator and impose a unilateral 45% import tariff on Chinese goods is muddled at best. At its worst, laymen and pundits alike are seeing great opportunity for US-China conflict regarding trade.

The problem with current analysis is that it directly addresses the populist rhetoric that won Trump the White House, but Trump’s rhetoric is just that- rhetoric. One of the many reasons main stream media fundamentally misunderstands President elect Trump is those  on the left take him literally and not seriously. Trump supporters took him seriously but not literally.

So how can we better understand coming conflict and possibility of a trade war? How can businesses hedge for the future? How can we understand trade between America and China in 2017?

On America

Donald Trump sees the chronic U.S. trade deficit as a problem that puts limits on growth. Most noteworthy, he has missed the deep-seated structural imbalances of the world only to abrasively confront the symptoms of those structural imbalances .  Identifying and attacking symptoms of globalization’s deals is what he has done : stopping the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) signed last year and on similar talks with Europe, insisting he will renegotiate NAFTA, talking tough on China, and threatening to impose tariffs on U.S. companies that relocate jobs abroad. Changing the structure of the world’s largest economy is going to be a long, contentious affair, so if there is a US- China trade war I expect to see the first policy signs from China. There may be noise from the Trump administration, but that should not be confused with effective, enforceable action.

Identifying international imbalances to those left behind in the Rust Belt who were never given a fair chance at the economic future described by smug intellectual globalist may be enough to get elected. However, turning that anger to structural policy is going to be difficult. There is $650 billion in trade between the U.S. and China each year. Whatever the shortcomings of the current relationship, American exporters selling soybeans or airplanes to China, companies managing complex global supply chains, and consumers buying the clothing and iPhones they make could all be severely affected if it took a turn for the worse. There are very simple gaps in President Elect Trump’s propositions.

The most dramatic move being considered is the so-called “border adjustment tax”: exempting exports from the corporate income tax, while imposing it on the value of all imports. Exporters would obviously see a big tax cut, while companies that need to buy inputs or merchandise from abroad could end up paying more taxes, even at a lower rate. Even if exchange rates eventually shifted to cancel out the impact, as many anticipate, the price adjustments could be highly disruptive, with some better able to cope than others, both at home and abroad. This border tax seems to be the first large trade weapon, and it will take, at best, months to materialize. I firmly expect meaningful trade action regarding the value of RMB to be implemented before any Trump tax policy. Trump’s tax policy is looming large, but numerous questions have yet to be answered.

How does President Elect Trump choose to address the fact that 37% of China’s exports to the United States in 2015 consisted of value-added imports from other countries? Trump’s top advisers put great emphasis on closing the U.S. trade gap as a way to boost growth. Which growth do they intend maximize, employment or GDP?

Trade imbalances reflect patterns of consumption, savings, and investment embedded in the broader economy, at home and abroad. Ironically, Trump’s other policies—debt-funded fiscal stimulus and encouraging U.S. companies to bring home overseas profits, for another—affects these factors in ways that are actually likely to widen the trade deficit.

Deutsche Bank has given a list of industries that President Elect Trump may target.

deutsche-1

Deutsche Bank has also given a list of industries that China may retaliate against.

deutsche-2

Will these companies, representing the lives, fortunes, and hopes of many, go quietly into the night? Whatever the talk of trade war, the democratic process of changing the way these billions of dollars move is going to be long and contentious. Because the United States political process will take a long time, I fully expect important trade policy to first come from China. These first Chinese policies, which RMB seems the most immediate, will shape American response. 

Americans should be more concerned about market access (shown below), and how to create value in China’s inevitable economic rebalancing.

manufacturing-imports

As he enters office, Donald Trump faces a difficult set of choices. The key to growth—not just in America, but in China, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere—lies in tackling challenges, and laying foundations, that often come at a short term cost, in exchange for a longer term payoff.

No country has such an immediate decision to make regarding short term cost in exchange for a longer term payoff as China.

Change is coming to China

Donald Trump has appointed Peter Navarro, author of Death by China and The Coming China Wars, as the head of a new United States national trade body. Navarro has written that China practices economic warfare on the United States through mercantilism. In his book Death by China, Peter Navarro estimates that the RMB is overvalued by 40%. Don’t panic.

It foolish to panic and speculate about Chinese international policy from America for three reasons. First, China has a more urgent timeline to address domestic economic imbalances (large capital outflows, low consumption,and soaring debt). Second, China has more meaningful policy firepower at its disposal. Third, American policy will take longer to draft, ratify, and implement due to obvious political realities. No one has more need to address economic distortions resulting in large trade surpluses than China, and domestic changes from the Xi administration have a measurable deadline.

No economic issue looks to be more contentious than Trade between America and China in 2017, because it will change how we frame the Chinese currency debate in which President Elect Trump has often referred.

Due to a wide range of poor economic conditions, money is leaving China. In December $82 Billion left China. Roughly $800 Billion left China in total in 2016.  Instead of allowing large changes in the exchange rate, China is selling foreign exchange reserves and pursuing harsher penalties against capital outflows. There are at least two immediate problems with this strategy: foreign exchange reserves can’t last forever, and the largest trading country in the world, which is equipped with a $33 trillion banking sector, cannot  implement complete capital outflow control. Chinese reserves will deplete before the United States could make a justifiable case of currency manipulation that entails corrective action.

This image from Business Insider illustrates the overall trend well.

fx-reserves

Capital is leaving China due to economic weakness at home. The Chinese growth model, which is not new; unique; nor difficult to understand, transfers money from savers and consumers to investments and producers through artificially low interest rates; slow rising wages; hidden taxes; environmental degradation; and an undervalued currency. The effect of this has been to retard the growth of household income, which results in a country having a higher savings rate (this is an economic tautology).   We can see the effects of this economic model very clearly in the household consumption share of GDP.

consumption-china

Personally, this chart is surreal to me. It is the most important chart that describes China today, and few people understand its depth and think it is normal. I digress.

This chart from the world bank shows that Chinese household consumption is about half of the global average. If Chinese household capture a global historically low percentage of wealth  created in their country, where does the money go? It goes to investment. Here is the rub; the investments aren’t returning money; the investments haven’t been returning money for years. For the year 2016, debt rose by 40-45% of GDP while nominal GDP grew by less than 8%. Chinese debt cannot rise at this pace for much longer. Decreasing the national savings rate (not to be confused with household savings) is in America’s interest, but China’s interest is immediate. Crippling debt would hinder Chinese growth, as it did in Japan and much of Latin America in the 70’s-80’s, for at least a decade.

So, what’s the point? America is unhappy with absorbing Chinese economic imbalances, however China has the largest and most urgent stake in solving its own economic imbalance in capital outflows and debt growth.  These two problems must be solved in the immediate future to avoid flat economic growth and rising unemployment. The domestic policy firepower that Chairman Xi Jinping wields is greater than America’s ability to influence Chinese distortion symptoms. The point for those interested in China is to track changing domestic policy and the winners/losers it will create. For example, raising interest rates will have a greater effect on companies that are leveraged or  unleveraged. Raising the value of the RMB will hurt exporters, but raise the purchasing power of Chinese consumers. I don’t want to speculate of domestic policy in China. Only a select few people in the entire country have a voice in the process, and economic analysis here increasingly turns to political speculation. It is worth repeating due to its importance: yes, the value of the RMB will be contentious, however domestic Chinese policies will be more important than words or actions from a Donald Trump administration. Chinese businesses should focus on the many ways that the Chinese economy must rebalance in the immediate future.

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