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Trump Wins Trade War As Global Markets Plummet
It’s early July, long before this article goes live, but from where I stand, it’s already clear. On Friday, July 6, both the U.S. and China raised tariffs on $34 billion worth of goods. That didn’t stop the S&P 500 from continuing to rally to its January 26 record high. First, unemployment is at historically low levels and the Federal Reserve is set to raise rates twice before the end of the year – all against the backdrop of a hidden recession in discretionary spending.
So, what about that trade war? Let’s recap. Most would agree that free trade in goods is best for all parties involved. Goods will be cheaper, and those that cannot compete on price will compete on quality, resulting in beneficial commodity improvements. All was well until protectionism and nationalism reared its ugly head. It is difficult for goods from some countries to compete on the basis of price and/or quality. Globally, world leaders in these countries have made no secret of pursuing their own interests at the expense of others. We often disadvantage ourselves in order to avoid images of ugly Americans. Nowhere is this more evident than in trade, as our trading partners often have significant advantages.
US Census data shows that we have trade deficits with every trade region except South and Central America and Australia/Oceania. At just $331.4 billion and $14.38 billion respectively over the past four years, trade totaled $310.44 billion, dwarfed by the rest of the world’s trade deficit of $844.66 billion, which totaled $3.578 trillion. Here are averages (in billions) for most of the world from 2014-2017:
China is a good example. Aware of the huge economic benefits of 1.38 billion consumers, they get huge concessions from their trading partners, including the US. When they are not banning certain sectors of American commerce, they restrict or regulate business, impose tariffs on goods, or coerce the release of intellectual property. Note that this is one way; no intellectual property is shared.
These noncompetitive business practices are unfair, but until now, American companies have accepted them without much pushback because of the cost of doing business in the United States. Until Trump. What China’s leaders need to realize is that they are not in a good negotiating position, and the longer they hold out, the more damage they will do to their economy.
That’s why. The leaders of the government’s economy are well aware of their history and realize that the large Chinese population will not endure harsh conditions forever. To curb discontent, they instituted policies that inflated economic growth. Their GDP growth has averaged 11.7% over the past decade, according to Trading Economics, but cracks in their armor are showing. From its heyday in 2010 to 2011, GDP grew by 19% and 24%, respectively, with growth rates falling steadily, and sometimes sharply. In 2015 and 2016, it was 5.56% and 1.14%, respectively. No wonder worried central government data has since pushed hard to increase global exports, including to the US, leading to a return to GDP growth of 9.35% in 2017. The prospect of tariff increases, which would make their goods less competitive, conflicts with those plans. The Chinese economy is struggling and their stock market is the proof. The smaller Shenzhen Composite Index entered bear market territory in February and the Shanghai Composite Index closed in bear market territory on Tuesday, June 27. The index fell as low as -26.5% and -25.0 on July 5, but has recently recovered to -22.5 and -21.2% as global markets climbed in tandem with US markets. That’s still in bear market territory, which will reduce much-needed foreign investment. Meanwhile, U.S. GDP is growing steadily, the economy appears to be healthy, and the stock market is near new highs. Trump knows he has more economic leeway to intensify the tariff game for longer. Plus, he’s probably causing more pain to the Chinese economy than they’ve been to ours.
To understand why, let’s look at transaction data. The average trade deficit with China in the past four years was US$358.68 billion, showing an upward trend. Since 2012, US exports have fluctuated between $11-129 billion, while China’s imports have grown steadily from $315 to $375 billion. Last year, the deficit was -US$375.58 billion, of which US$129.89 billion was US exports to China and US$505.47 billion was US-China imports. Not only is trade unbalanced, but tariffs are also unbalanced. Before this year, U.S. tariffs on Chinese agricultural and non-agricultural products were 2.5 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, while Chinese tariffs on U.S. goods were 9.7 percent and 5 percent, respectively. Admittedly, these are down from an average of 14.1% before China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, but that is part of the price, with tariffs being much higher in certain industries.
According to the International Trade Center Trade Map http://www.intracen.org/marketanalysis, the following are the top 10 US exports to China in 2017:
Aircraft, spacecraft – $16.3 billion
Vehicles – $13.2 billion
Oilseeds – $13 billion
Machinery – $12.9 billion
Electronic equipment – $12.1 billion
Medical, technical equipment – $8.8 billion
Fossil fuels including petroleum – $8.6 billion
Plastics – $5.7 billion
Wood pulp – $3.4 billion
Lumber – $3.2 billion
Total – $97.7 billion
Together they accounted for 74.8% of all exports that year. Note that except for oilseeds, most of which are soybeans, the rest are non-agricultural products. But their tariffs are not the same, depending on how strategic the product is. For example, Chinese cars cannot compete with American cars, so the tariffs on the latter range from 21% to 30%. That compares with a top tax rate of 2.5 percent for Chinese auto imports into the U.S.
This is where the problem lies. The Chinese can only ramp up imports of these goods, some of which have few suppliers outside the United States. Therefore, some announced tariff hikes are empty talk and have no real meaning. As an example, China announced a 25% tariff on aircraft, but not all aircraft – just those with an “empty weight” of 15,000 to 45,000 kg. While it appears China is targeting Boeing, it turns out that the rules only address the phasing out of older 737s, not the larger models that make up the bulk of Boeing’s trade. China urgently needs to develop its aviation industry. It is estimated that 7,000 new aircraft will be required over the next 20 years. Airbus is operating at almost full capacity, and the rest can only turn to Boeing for help.
The same goes for soybeans, a major source of China’s agricultural imports. China is the world’s largest pork market and they need soybeans as feed. As it turns out, Brazil and the United States are the world’s two largest soybean suppliers. Brazil has been increasing production for years and now accounts for 57 percent of China’s soybean imports. This is mainly at the expense of the United States, but Brazil does not have the capacity to make up the remaining 31% of US soybean exports to China. Therefore, the planned 25% tariff increase will directly hurt Chinese pig farmers.
Ultimately, the sheer size of the trade imbalance will work in Trump’s favor. With $500 billion in Chinese goods at risk, compared to the US’s $130 billion, China’s fate is sealed. That is, assuming Trump insists on raising the bar while keeping disgruntled American businessmen at bay. Historians may recall that during the Reagan years, similar rising standards culminated in Russia’s capitulation. Having already hit tariff limits won’t help China.
We’ve seen the endgame. Trump announced 10% tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods just four days after both countries raised taxes equally. After the announcement late on Tuesday, July 10, China was unable to retaliate equilaterally. Instead, China announced it would fight back in other ways — possibly by selling U.S. Treasuries, which would flood the market for longer-term bonds, sending bond prices lower and yields higher.
For the latter, Trump’s victory has come at a price. Thanks to his success with China, Trump will continue to pursue a trade normalization agenda with other trading partners. Although trade with the UK is fairly balanced, the EU had a $173.58 billion trade advantage last year out of a $839 billion trade. Not only that, but the EU has also made a habit of going after American tech giants with which it cannot compete. Think Qualcomm in 2018, Google in 2017, Facebook in 2017, Apple in 2016 and Microsoft in 2013. Japan is in the same boat. Our deficit with Japan averaged -$68.59 billion from 2014-2017, and trade was -$68.88 billion last year, with trade at $204 billion. Despite loosening government regulations under Prime Minister Abe, Japan has a culture of discouraging foreign investment, especially in the financial sector. Additionally, they have high tariffs on dairy (up to 40%) and meat (38.5% on beef), which account for $6.1 billion of US exports to the country. Trump has made it clear that they are also involved, and they have responded with salvos.
Given the posturing of all parties involved, future tariffs will be higher than before. This would raise the price of U.S. goods abroad, making them less competitive. In turn, this will affect the earnings of our larger international companies. Our stock market may be hovering high right now, but I believe this will be the catalyst for a downturn in the market as investors looking ahead depress these stocks. In addition, imposing tariffs on imported products will inevitably lead to inflation. We are already at the Fed’s comfort level of 2%, so any sign of rising inflation would prompt the Fed to stem inflation by raising the fed funds rate outside of its current path. If China retaliates with a Treasury sell-off plan, their incentive to do so will be strengthened, as higher 10-year rates ease the Fed’s fears of an inverted yield curve.
A stock market downturn would reverse the economic wealth effect we’ve seen recently, which combined with lost exports would undoubtedly lead to job losses and higher unemployment. On top of that, the hidden discretionary recession we’ve been experiencing will become very pronounced as the peak US consumption population continues to decline through 2023. This is not a uniquely American event. World population growth increased from 1946 to 1968, when it peaked at 2.09%, coinciding with much of the baby boomer generation’s swell. Since then, it has been steadily declining until reaching 1.09% at the start of the year. The peak consumption period is the 46-50 age group, and if we take 1968 as the midpoint of their population peak, they will peak in 2016. This is the main reason why a populous country like China has been worried about a slowdown in consumerism for the past few years. The upshot is that we will see a decline in global discretionary spending for at least the next five years. This will lead to an accelerated decline in the global economy over the next five years, with global stock markets plummeting in the next few years.
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