Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars
In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.
LONDON – Is US President Donald Trump what Maoists used to call a paper tiger, or should his noisy threats be taken seriously? That question has loomed particularly large over the North Korean nuclear issue. But after Trump’s fairly emollient 12-day tour of Asia, fears of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula have ebbed somewhat.
And yet that same tour raised another threat, which the world has every reason to take seriously. In the second year of his presidency, Trump’s administration will likely set its sights on trade, suggesting that the prospect of more trade wars will increase substantially.
In his first year in office, Trump has often huffed and puffed about other countries’ unfair trade practices, just as he did during the 2016 election campaign; but he has done little to turn words into deeds. This inaction is understandable. Trump is relying on China – one of America’s largest trade partners – to apply pressure on the North Korean regime, while US businesses have lobbied vigorously against any measures that might inhibit trade.
Still, Trump’s apparent restraint cannot be expected to last. Trade is one of the few policy areas where he can be said to have an ideology. The “logic” of that ideology holds that trade deficits are proof of unfair practices by other countries, and should thus be met with tough and decisive action.
Moreover, Trump has a compelling political interest in maintaining the support of his core supporters. After Twitter, Trump’s trade rhetoric is his most powerful weapon. It is never too early to start building a case for re-election in 2020.
Until now, Trump has been willing to hold back on the trade issue until the Republican Party’s planned tax overhaul makes its way through Congress. He does not want to risk disrupting his and his party’s last chance to secure a real legislative victory this year. Once tax legislation is off the table – and especially if it fails ignominiously in the same manner as the Republicans’ health-care-reform effort earlier this year – Trump will want to show that he means what he has said on trade.
Trade is at the center of Trump’s “America First” approach, which he claims will protect and even restore lost American jobs. While some in Trump’s cabinet might reject efforts to apply the slogan to the issues they oversee, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro all share Trump’s views on trade.
Each agrees that America’s big bilateral trade deficits with countries such as China, Japan, Germany, and Mexico are proof that America is being taken for a ride by its competitors. Trump and his trade advisers believe that by reducing or even eliminating those deficits, they can create well-paid jobs for American workers.
Trump made his views clear in a speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on November 10. “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” he said. “I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it. They did not, but I will.”
But what concrete actions will Trump actually take? So far, he has abandoned the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership – which his election opponent, Hillary Clinton, had also promised to do – and opened negotiations with Mexico and Canada to update the North American Free-Trade Agreement, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. This is minor stuff.
But next year, Trump can be expected to turn rhetoric into action on two main fronts. The first is China, which Trump has singled out as the greatest trade exploiter of the US. Unless the North Korea standoff escalates critically, he will likely initiate anti-dumping actions against Chinese industries – notably in steel – deemed to be selling their goods below cost; and he will probably launch a broad assault on intellectual-property violations in China.
These measures will almost certainly provoke retaliation from China. China feels stronger than ever in the Trump era, and in the eyes of Chinese cadres, not responding forcefully would be a sign of weakness.
The other main front for Trump is the World Trade Organization, which America helped establish in the early 1990s as a successor to the post-war General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Lighthizer has gone on record to describe the WTO’s dispute-settlement system as harmful to America. And already, the Trump administration is blocking the appointment of new judges to WTO arbitration panels. If it maintains that policy, the WTO’s entire dispute-settlement system will be crippled within months.
With the WTO essentially out of the picture, the US will launch a new initiative to strike bilateral deals on trade rules – an approach that Trump advocated in his APEC speech. Given that the US remains a vital market for most exporters, such an initiative will have clout.
Asian and European countries, in particular, should be preparing for the worst by negotiating their own trade agreements with one another to preempt American mercantilism. After all, taking the initiative to boost trade and other commercial contacts is the best way to resist a trade war.
By reviving the TPP without US involvement, Japan and other Asia-Pacific countries are already on the right track. But if a Trump trade war is in the offing, they – and other countries – will need to double down on that approach.
China’s Weapons of Trade War
China exports more to the US than the US exports to China, and that makes Donald Trump furious. But with the Communist Party’s 19th Congress set to take place in Beijing this year, Chinese leaders are unlikely to yield to US pressure.
BEIJING – China exports more to the United States than the US exports to China. That makes US President Donald Trump furious – so furious, in fact, that he may be willing to start a trade war over it.
Trump has leveled tough protectionist threats against China. As he attempts to consolidate his presidency, he is unlikely to back away from them. And with the Communist Party of China’s 19th National Congress set to take place in Beijing in November, Chinese leaders are unlikely to yield to US pressure.
A trade war would undoubtedly hurt both sides. But there is reason to believe that the US has more to lose. If nothing else, the Chinese seem to know precisely which weapons they have available to them.
China could stop purchasing US aircraft, impose an embargo on US soybean products, and dump US Treasury securities and other financial assets. Chinese enterprises could reduce their demand for US business services, and the government could persuade companies not to buy American. The bulk of numerous Fortune 500 companies’ annual sales come from China nowadays – and they already feel increasingly unwelcome.
Beyond being America’s second most important trading partner, China is America’s main jobs supplier. A trade war could thus cost the US millions of jobs. If China switched from Boeing to Airbus, for example, the US would lose some 179,000 jobs. Reduction in US business services would cost another 85,000 jobs. Soybean-producing regions – for example, in Missouri and Mississippi – could lose some 10% of local jobs if China halted imports.
Moreover, though the US exports less to China than vice versa, it is China that controls key components in global supply chains and production networks. Consider the iPhone. While China provides just 4% of value added, it supplies the core components to Apple at low prices. Apple cannot build an iPhone from scratch in the US, so it would have to search for alternative suppliers, raising its production costs considerably. This would give Chinese smartphone businesses an opportunity to seize market share from major players.
Today, 80% of global trade comprises international supply chains. Declining trade costs have allowed firms to splinter their production lines geographically, with goods processed and value added in multiple countries along the chain. If China threw a handful of sand in the gears of these chains, it could disrupt entire production networks, doing serious damage to the US (and, indeed, all the countries participating in such networks).
An escalating trade war, with each side erecting symmetric import barriers, would fuel inflationary pressure in the US, potentially driving the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates higher and faster than it would otherwise. That, together with diminished growth prospects, would depress equity markets, and declining employment and household income could lead to a sizeable loss of GDP in both the US and China.
A more likely scenario, however, is that both countries would initiate disputes in specific sectors, particularly traditional manufacturing industries like iron and steel production. Meanwhile, Trump will continue to accuse China of manipulating its exchange rate, ignoring the recent downward pressure on the renminbi (which indicates that the currency was actually overvalued), not to mention the simple fact that many governments intervene to manage their exchange rates.
Both Japan and Switzerland have engaged in outright currency intervention in recent years, and the US itself may well join their ranks, when the strong dollar’s impact on US export competitiveness becomes untenable. In any case, China can probably forget about achieving “market economy status” under World Trade Organization rules until after Trump is out of the White House.
The trade confrontation between the US and China will also affect bilateral investment flows. The US may cite national security concerns to block Chinese investments. It may also stop government purchases from Chinese companies like Huawei, and force Chinese firms and wealthy individuals to reduce investments that have hitherto bolstered US asset prices.
A high-quality US-China bilateral investment treaty would create a level playing field for American companies, giving them better access to China’s large market. But those talks will invariably be pushed back, while disputes over intellectual property rights and cyber security will be reinvigorated.
For now, China’s leaders seem convinced that they have little reason to bend to US pressure. For one thing, Trump seems more concerned with other priorities, such as repealing the US Affordable Care Act, reforming the tax system, and investing in infrastructure.
Even if a trade war does happen, China’s leaders assume, it probably would not be sustained for long, given the income and job losses that both sides would suffer. In any case, they have no intention of sending any signal of weakness to a leader so intent on testing other’s limits.
For the past five years, China has sought to establish a growth model that is less reliant on exports and more reliant on domestic consumption. But China often needs a crisis or an external shock to drive reform. Perhaps Trump is that shock. While his policies will be bad for China in the short term, they may also provide the impetus China needs to stop subsidizing exports and perpetuating distortions in the domestic economy. If this happens, China may actually emerge from the era of Trump better off than before.
How to Lose a Trade War
The Trump administration's imposition of so-called safeguard tariffs on imports of solar panels and washing machines is directed mainly at China and South Korea. But, while neither country is responsible for America's large trade deficit, further protectionist measures seem certain – and will leave US consumers worse off.
NEW HAVEN – Protectionist from the start, US President Donald Trump’s administration has now moved from rhetoric to action in its avowed campaign to defend US workers from what Trump calls the “carnage” of “terrible trade deals.” Unfortunately, this approach is backward-looking at best. At worst, it could very well spark retaliatory measures that will only exacerbate the plight of beleaguered middle-class American consumers. This is exactly how trade wars begin.
China is clearly the target. The January 23 imposition of so-called safeguard tariffs on imports of solar panels and washing machines under Section 201 of the US Trade Act of 1974 is directed mainly at China and South Korea. Significantly, the move could be the opening salvo in a series of measures.
Last August, the US Trade Representative launched Section 301 investigations against China in three broad areas: intellectual property rights, innovation, and technology development. This is likely to lead to follow-up sanctions. Moreover, a so-called Section 232 investigation into the national security threat posed by unfair steel imports also takes dead aim at China as the world’s largest steel producer.
These actions hardly come as a surprise for a president who promised in his inaugural address a year ago to “…protect [America’s] borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” But that’s precisely the problem. Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s cri de coeur of America First, the US could well find itself on the losing side of a trade war.
For starters, tariffs on solar panels and washing machines are hopelessly out of step with transformative shifts in the global supply chains of both industries. Solar panel production has long been moving from China to places like Malaysia, South Korea, and Vietnam, which now collectively account for about two-thirds of America’s total solar imports. And Samsung, a leading foreign supplier of washing machines, has recently opened a new appliance factory in South Carolina.
Moreover, the Trump administration’s narrow fixation on an outsize bilateral trade imbalance with China continues to miss the far broader macroeconomic forces that have spawned a US multilateral trade deficit with 101 countries. Lacking in domestic saving and wanting to consume and grow, America must import surplus saving from abroad and run massive current-account and trade deficits to attract the foreign capital.
Consequently, going after China, or any other country, without addressing the root cause of low saving is like squeezing one end of a water balloon: the water simply sloshes to the other end. With US budget deficits likely to widen by at least $1 trillion over the next ten years, owing to the recent tax cuts, pressures on domestic saving will only intensify. In this context, protectionist policies pose a serious threat to America’s already-daunting external funding requirements – putting pressure on US interest rates, the dollar’s exchange rate, or both.
In addition, America’s trading partners can be expected to respond in kind, putting export-led US economic growth at serious risk. For example, retaliatory tariffs by China – the third-largest and fastest-growing US export market – could put a real crimp in America’s leading exports to the country: soybeans, aircraft, a broad array of machinery, and motor vehicles parts. And, of course, China could always curtail its purchases of US Treasuries, with serious consequences for financial asset prices.
Finally, one must consider the price adjustments that are likely to arise from the inertia of existing trade flows. Competitive pressures from low-cost foreign production have driven down the average cost of solar installation in the US by 70% since 2010. The new tariffs will boost the price of foreign-made solar panels – the functional equivalent of a tax hike on energy consumers and a setback for efforts to boost reliance on non-carbon fuels. A similar response can be expected from producers of imported washing machines; LG Electronics, a leading foreign supplier, has just announced a price increase of $50 per unit in response to the imposition of US tariffs. American consumers are already on the losing end in the Trump administration’s first skirmishes.
Contrary to Trump’s tough talk, there is no winning strategy in a trade war. That doesn’t mean US policymakers should shy away from addressing unfair trading practices. The dispute-resolution mechanism of the World Trade Organization was designed with precisely that aim in mind, and it has worked quite effectively to America’s advantage over the years. Since the WTO’s inception in 1995, the US has filed 123 of the 537 disputes that have been brought before the body – including 21 lodged against China. While WTO adjudication takes time and effort, more often than not the rulings have favored the US.
As a nation of laws, the US can hardly afford to operate outside the scope of a rules-based global trading system. If anything, that underscores the tragedy of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have provided a new and powerful framework to address concerns over Chinese trading practices.
At the same time, the US has every right to insist on fair access for its multinational corporations to operate in foreign markets; over the years, more than 3,000 bilateral investment treaties have been signed around the world to guarantee such equitable treatment. The lack of such a treaty between the US and China is a glaring exception, with the unfortunate effect of limiting of US companies’ opportunities to participate in the rapid expansion of China’s domestic consumer market. With trade tensions now mounting, hopes of a breakthrough on a US-China investment treaty have been all but dashed.
Trade wars are for losers. Perhaps that is the ultimate irony for a president who promised America it would start “winning” again. Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley made the same empty promise in 1930, leading to protectionist tariffs that exacerbated the Great Depression and destabilized the international order. Sadly, one of the most painful lessons of modern history has been all but forgotten.
Protectionism Will Not Protect Jobs Anywhere
As US and European political leaders fret about the future of quality jobs, they would do well to look at the far bigger problems faced by developing Asia. There, the same angst that Americans and Europeans have about the future of employment is an order of magnitude higher.
CAMBRIDGE – As US and European political leaders fret about the future of quality jobs, they would do well to look at the far bigger problems faced by developing Asia – problems that threaten to place massive downward pressure on global wages. In India, where per capita income is roughly a tenth that of the United States, more than ten million people per year are leaving the countryside and pouring into urban areas, and they often cannot find work even as chaiwalas, much less as computer programmers. The same angst that Americans and Europeans have about the future of jobs is an order of magnitude higher in Asia.
Should India aim to follow the traditional manufacturing export model that Japan pioneered and that so many others, including China, have followed? Where would that lead if, over the next couple of decades, automation is going to make most such jobs obsolete?
There is, of course, the service sector, where 80% of the population in advanced economies works, and where India’s outsourcing sector still tops the world. Unfortunately, there, too, the path ahead is anything but smooth. Automated calling systems already have supplanted a substantial part of the global phone center business, and many routine programming jobs are also losing ground to computers.
China’s economic progress may have been the big story of the last 30 years, but it struggles with similar challenges. While China is far more urbanized than India, it, too, is still trying to bring ten million people a year into its cities. Between jobs lost to automation and to lower-wage competitors such as Vietnam and Sri Lanka, integrating new workers is becoming increasingly difficult.
Recently, the rise in global protectionism has made this difficult situation worse, as epitomized by the decision of Foxconn (a major supplier to Apple) to invest $10 billion in a new factory in Wisconsin. Admittedly, the 13,000 new jobs in the United States is a drop in the bucket compared to the 20 million (or more) that India and China must create each year, or even compared to the two million that the US needs.
At the margin, the US and Europe might have some scope to make trade fairer, as Trump says he will do. For example, many Chinese steel plants have state-of-the-art pollution controls, but these can be switched off to save costs. When the result is that excess output is dumped at cheap prices into world markets, Western countries are fully justified in taking countermeasures.
Unfortunately, the long history of trade protectionism is that it rarely takes the form of a surgical strike. Far more often, the main beneficiaries are the rich and politically connected, while the losers are consumers who pay higher prices.
Countries that go too far in closing themselves off to foreign competition eventually lose their edge, with innovation, jobs, and growth suffering. Brazil and India, for example, have historically suffered from inward-looking trade policies, though both have become more open in recent years.
Another problem is that most Western economies have long since become deeply intertwined in global supply chains. Even the Trump administration had to reconsider its plan to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement when it finally realized that a lot of US imports from Mexico have substantial US content. Erecting high tariff barriers might cost as many US jobs as Mexican jobs. And, of course, if the US were to raise its import tariffs sharply, a large part of the costs would be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.
Trade will surely increasingly permeate the service sector, too. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (named after the eighteenth-century chess-playing machine which actually had a person cleverly hidden inside) is an example of a new platform that allows buyers to contract very small specific tasks (for example, programming or data transcription) at third-world wage rates. Amazon’s clever slogan is “artificial artificial intelligence.”
Even if protectionists could shut down outsourcing of tasks, what would the cost be? To be sure, online service platforms do need to be regulated, as early experience with Uber has demonstrated. But, given the massive number of new jobs that India and China need to create every year, and with the Internet remaining highly permeable, it is folly to think advanced economies can clamp down tightly on service exports.
So how should countries deal with the relentless advance of technology and trade? For the foreseeable future, improving infrastructure and education can achieve a great deal. While the rest of the world floundered in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, China continued to extend its vast logistical and supply chains.
In a world where people are likely to have to change jobs frequently and sometimes radically, wholesale changes in adult education are needed, mainly effected through online learning. Last but not least, countries need to institute stronger redistribution though taxes and transfers. Traditional populist trade policies, like those that Trump has espoused, have not worked well in the past, and are likely to perform even worse now.
The Real Risk to the Global Economy
One might assume that the brewing crises on the Korean Peninsula and in the Middle East pose a serious threat to the current global economic expansion. But political crises often induce only brief market corrections, whereas gradual shifts in international global institutions can be far more consequential for investor behavior.
WASHINGTON, DC – One of the great mysteries of today’s global markets is their irrepressible enthusiasm, even as the world around them appears on the verge of chaos or collapse. And yet, investors may be more rational than they appear when it comes to pricing in political risks. If investing is foremost about discounting future cash flows, it’s important to focus precisely on what will and will not affect those calculations. The potential crises that may be most dramatic or violent are, ironically, the ones that the market has the easiest time looking through.
Far more dangerous are gradual shifts in international global institutions that upend expectations about how key players will behave. Such shifts may emerge only slowly, but they can fundamentally change the calculus for pricing in risks and potential returns.
Today’s market is easy to explain in terms of fundamental factors: earnings are growing, inflation has been kept at bay, and the global economy appears to be experiencing a broad, synchronized expansion. In October, the International Monetary Fund updated its global outlook to predict that only a handful of small countries will suffer a recession next year. And while the major central banks are planning, or have already begun, to tighten monetary policy, interest rates will remain low for now.
Political crises, however sensational they may be, are not likely to change investors’ economic calculus. Even after the greatest calamities of the twentieth century, markets bounced back fairly quickly. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, US stock markets fell by 10%, but recovered within six weeks. Similarly, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, US stocks dropped nearly 12%, but bounced back in a month. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, stock prices fell less than 3%, and recovered the next day.
Yes, each political crisis is different. But through most of them, veteran emerging-markets investor Jens Nystedt notes, market participants can count on a response from policymakers. Central banks and finance ministries will almost always rush to offset rising risk premia by adjusting interest rates or fiscal policies, and investors bid assets back to their pre-crisis values.
Today, a conflict with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs tops most lists of potential crises. Open warfare or a nuclear incident on the Korean Peninsula would trigger a humanitarian disaster, interrupt trade with South Korea – the world’s 13th largest economy – and send political shockwaves around the world. And yet such a disaster would most likely be brief, and its outcome would be clear almost immediately. The world’s major powers would remain more or less aligned, and future cash flows on most investments would continue undisturbed.
The same can be said of Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman just purged the government and security apparatus to consolidate his power. Even if a sudden upheaval in the Kingdom were to transform the balance of power in the Middle East, the country would still want to maintain its exports. And if there were an interruption in global oil flows, it would be cushioned by competing producers and new technologies.
Similarly, a full-scale political or economic collapse in Venezuela would have serious regional implications, and might result in an even deeper humanitarian crisis there. But it would most likely not have any broader, much less systemic, impact on energy and financial markets.
Such scenarios are often in the headlines, so their occurrence is less likely to come as a surprise. But even when a crisis, like a cyber attack or an epidemic, erupts unexpectedly, the ensuing market disruption usually lasts only as long as it takes for investors to reassess discount rates and future profit streams.
By contrast, changes in broadly shared economic assumptions are far more likely to trigger a sell-off, by prompting investors to reassess the likelihood of actually realizing projected cash flows. There might be a dawning awareness among investors that growth rates are slowing, or that central banks have missed the emergence of inflation once again. Or the change might come more suddenly, with, say, the discovery of large pockets of toxic loans that are unlikely to be repaid.
As emerging-market investors well know, political changes can affect economic assumptions. But, again, the risk stems less from unpredictable shocks than from the slow erosion of institutions that investors trust to make an uncertain world more predictable.
For example, investors in Turkey know that the country’s turn away from democracy has distanced it from Europe and introduced new risks for future returns. On the other hand, in Brazil, despite an ongoing corruption scandal that has toppled one president and could topple another, investors recognize that the country’s institutions are working – albeit in their own cumbersome way – and they have priced risks accordingly.
The greatest political risk to global markets today, then, is that the key players shaping investor expectations undergo a fundamental realignment. Most concerning of all is the United States, which is now seeking to carve out a new global role for itself under President Donald Trump.
By withdrawing from international agreements and trying to renegotiate existing trade deals, the US has already become less predictable. Looking ahead, if Trump and future US leaders continue to engage with other countries through zero-sum transactions rather than cooperative institution-building, the world will be unable to muster a joint response to the next period of global market turmoil.
Ultimately, a less reliable US will require a higher discount rate almost everywhere. Unless other economic cycles intervene before investors’ expectations shift, that will be the end of the current market boom.