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.
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.
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.
Whither the Multilateral Trading System?
The global economy today is dominated by three major players – China, the EU, and the US – with roughly equal trading volumes and limited incentive to fight for the rules-based global trading system. With cooperation unlikely, the world should prepare itself for the erosion of the World Trade Organization.
BRUSSELS – Free trade seems to have few supporters these days. Though actual trade volumes are recovering from the post-crisis recession and drop in commodity prices, “globalization” has become increasingly contentious, as exemplified by the election of US President Donald Trump on the back of a promise to rip up international agreements and get tough on trade partners. What does this mean for the future of the rules-based trading system?
Some 60 years ago, when the current rules-based global trading system was conceived, the United States was the world’s sole economic “hyperpower,” possessing unquestioned dominance in the day’s most advanced manufacturing industries. With enough power to impose rules, and enough dominance to be able to count on accruing the largest share of the benefits, it could – and did – perform the role of “benevolent hegemon.”
As Japan and Europe recovered from World War II – with the latter getting an added boost from economic integration – America’s lead began to dwindle, and by the 1970s and 1980s, the US was sharing power over the world’s trade agenda with Europe. Nonetheless, because the US and Europe share so many common interests, they generally adhered to a cooperative approach.
It was not until imports began to overwhelm a growing number of industries in the US, fueling the emergence of large and persistent external deficits, that the country’s trade policy became more defensive, creating friction with many of its partners. Yet, even then, US leaders understood the value of the liberal multilateral trading system, and supported the establishment, in 1995, of the World Trade Organization as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
The WTO’s creation amounted to a major step forward, as it addressed not just tariffs, but also other trade barriers, including indirect barriers arising from domestic regulations. Given the complexity of assessing how domestic regulations might impede trade, especially compared to judging whether a tariff has been correctly applied, the WTO needed effective dispute-settlement mechanisms, with members agreeing to binding arbitration. The system worked, because its major members recognized the legitimacy of independent panels, even if they sometimes deliver politically inconvenient judgments.
Yet this recognition is now increasingly in doubt. Consider what type of economy would support a rules-based system. After WWII, the US supported such a system, because of its unassailable economic supremacy. An open rules-based system would also be highly appealing in a world comprising only small countries, none of which could hope to gain by relying on its relative economic power.
Things become more complicated when the global economy includes a small number of economies of similar size, larger than the small economies from the previous example, but not large enough to dominate the system alone. That is the scenario the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman considered in a 1989 paper on bilateralism, in which he reported that a world consisting of three major trading blocs constitutes the worst constellation for trade, as a lack of explicit cooperation among all three would lead to increasing trade barriers.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the situation in which the global economy finds itself today. There are three dominant economies or trading blocs – China, the European Union, and the US – with very similar trade volumes (exports plus imports) of around $4 trillion each. (Japan, which was a strong contender 25 years ago, now has a much smaller trade volume.) Together, the G3 economies account for 40% of world trade and 45% of global GDP.
With economic power distributed in this way, explicit cooperation by all three actors is crucial. Yet there are compelling reasons why they would be reticent to pursue such cooperation.
Even if Trump weren’t president, the current global trading system would present problems for the US, whose trade policy has long focused on manufactured goods. (Trade in raw materials has always been relatively free, and trade in agricultural goods has usually been considered special, and thus not subject to rules like the “most favored nation” principle, which applies to manufactures.)
Because the US is now self-sufficient in energy, it needs to export fewer manufactured goods than industrialized countries with no domestic energy resources. Annual US exports of manufactured goods thus now amount to only about $1 trillion annually – significantly less than both the EU and China, which export almost twice as much in manufactured goods, despite having somewhat smaller economies.
To be sure, Trump is unlikely to start an outright trade war, because any US tariff would harm the interests of the country’s largest companies, which have invested huge sums in production facilities abroad. Yet no individual firm will be willing to give up much of its political capital to defend the rules-based system, either, because it would have to bear the losses, while its competitors shared the gains. The same goes for the G3 trading blocs: if the EU expends political capital to stop the US from undermining WTO mechanisms, China (and the rest of world) will reap most of the gains.
That dynamic goes some way toward explaining why China’s leaders, despite having proclaimed their support for the multilateral rules-based trading system, haven’t taken concrete action to reinforce it. Their reticence is probably intensified by the assumption that, within the current generation, their country will dominate the global economy; at that point, they might no longer want to be bound by somebody else’s rules.
It does not help matters that the Communist Party of China has recently been empowered even further in all areas of the economy, with all major firms now having to accept a CPC representative on their board. It is difficult to see how a dominant economic power governed by a single party – especially one with such extensive control over the economy – would accept the primacy of international rules and procedures over domestic considerations.
The conclusion is clear. The world should prepare itself for the erosion of the rules-based trading system enshrined in the WTO.