Trump Wins Trade War As Global Markets Plummet

It is early July, well before this article goes online, yet the landscape is pretty clear from where I stand. The U.S. and China both raised tariffs on $34 billion worth of goods Friday, July 6. This did not deter the S&P 500 from continuing its charge up to the January 26 all-time high. To boot, unemployment is historically low and the Fed is set to raise rates twice before the year ends – all this amidst a stealth discretionary spending recession.

So, how about that trade war? Let’s recap. Most folks would agree that the free trade of goods would be best for all concerned. Goods would be less expensive and those that could not compete on price would do so on quality, leading to a beneficial improvement of goods. All is well and good until protectionism and nationalism rear their ugly heads. Some nations have goods that find it difficult to compete on the basis of price and/or quality. Globally, world leaders of such nations are unapologetic in pursuing their nation’s interests at the expense of others. In trying to avoid the image of the ugly American, we have often placed ourselves at a disadvantage. Nowhere is this more evident than in trade were our trading partners often have a clear advantage.

U.S. Census Data shows that we have a trade deficit with every trading region except for South and Central America and Australia/Oceania. At only $33.14 and $14.38 billion, respectively, the last four years and a combined trade of $310.44 billion this pales in comparison with the deficit for the rest of the world, -$844.66 billion, whose combined trade is $3.578 trillion. Below are 2014-2017 averages for most of the world in billions:
Canada: -$20.01
European Union: -$149.61
Asia: -$547.49
Africa: -$2.60

China is a case in point. Aware of the huge financial benefit that comes with their 1.38 billion consumers, they extract huge concessions from their trading partners, including the U.S. When they have not barred certain U.S. business sectors, they restrict or regulate business, place tariffs on goods, or coerce intellectual property release. Note this goes one way; there is no intellectual property sharing.

These noncompetitive business practices are not fair, but until now, U.S. companies have accepted them without much push back as the cost of doing business there. That is until Trump. What Chinese leaders need to realize is that they are not in a good bargaining position and the longer they hold out the more harm will come to their economy.

Here is why. Leaders of the government-run economy are well aware of their history and realize the huge Chinese population is not going to put up with poor conditions forever. To keep discontent at bay, they have a policy of inflated economic growth. According to Trading Economics, they have averaged 11.7% GDP growth for the past 10 years but chinks in their armor are showing. From the 2010-2011 heyday, where GDP grew 19% and 24%, growth has dropped steadily and sometimes precipitously. It was 5.56% and 1.14% in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Little wonder that worried central government figures have made a big push since then for increasing their global exports, including those to the U.S., resulting in a resumption of GDP growth to 9.35% in 2017. The prospect of increased tariffs, which would make their goods less competitive, runs afoul of those plans. China’s economy is struggling and their stock market is testament to that. The smaller Shenzhen composite moved into bear market territory in February and the Shanghai composite closed in bear territory on Tuesday, June 27. The indexes went as low as -26.5% and -25.0 on July 5 but have recently recovered to -22.5 and -21.2%, respectively, as global markets have climbed in tandem with U.S. markets. That is still in bear market territory, which will curtail much need foreign investment. Meanwhile, U.S. GDP is growing steadily, the economy seems to be healthy, and the stock market is nearing new heights. Trump can ratchet up the tariff game longer knowing he has more economic wiggle room. Moreover, he can inflict more pain to the Chinese economy than they can to ours.

To see why, let’s look at the trade numbers. The trade deficit with China has averaged -$358.68 billion the last four years in a rising trend. While U.S. exports have vacillated between $110-129 billion since 2012, Chinese imports have steadily increased from $315 to 375 billion. Last year the deficit was -$375.58 billion, of which $129.89 billion were U.S. exports to China and $505.47 billion were U.S. Chinese imports. Not only is trade unbalanced, so are tariffs. Prior to this year, U.S. tariffs on Chinese agricultural and non-agricultural goods were 2.5% and 2.9%, respectively, while Chinese tariffs on U.S. goods were 9.7% and 5% for the same. True, these had been going down from a 14.1% average prior to 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organization but that was part of the price and tariffs are much higher for some industries.