Category Archives: Trade

Industrial Policy’s Global Return

INDUSTRIAL POLICY HAS long been a strong pillar of China’s economic agenda but a pariah in the Anglo-Saxon economies of the West.

It made a return there last August when the UK’s new Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her vision of a post-Brexit state-boosted industrial renaissance some three decades after the UK’s previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had killed it off.

Now, in the United States, President-elect Donald Trump is picking up the torch with the creation of a White House National Trade Council to facilitate industrial policy. Peter Navarro, a University of California economist who is a sceptic of trade with China, is its proposed head.

This suggests that a more populist approach to trade and manufacturing is in the offing from the Trump administration. US trade policy will more likely be used to promote domestic production and job creation, particularly in infrastructure and defence, two areas where ‘Buy American, Hire American” is easiest to implement.

That would represent a significant change from international trade as a foreign policy tool that it was under the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations.

It remains to be seen what this means in practice, and more importantly, where the new council fits into a Washington power structure that has to accommodate on economic matters the National Economic Council, the National Security Council, the Treasury, the U.S. trade representative and the commerce department.

Beijing, already sideswiped by Trump’s election win, will take its time to pick that apart.  Trump’s proposed commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, the soon to be octogenarian investor who made his billions from corporate restructuring of distressed companies, is this Bystander’s pick to emerge as the key figure among that group. But Navarro’s appointment will not offer Beijing much cheer.

Navarro is also an advocate of the theory, controversial among economists, that trade deficits are a drag on growth. The United States ran a $366 billion merchandise trade deficit with China last year.

This Bystander will be watching carefully for signs of the Trump administration seeking to implement a ‘border tax’. This is taxation regime within corporate tax that Navarro and Ross have argued is needed to offset what they say is the hurt other countries’ domestic tax systems impose on US exports, say through the imposition of value-added-taxes that have no equivalent in the United States.

In short, they argued that a 20% border tax could eliminate the overall US trade deficit (if not all of the one with China). Imports would become 20% more expensive to cover the new corporate tax liability while exports, which would be exempt, would be roughly 12% cheaper because of the tax savings exporters would get.

The net effect of what in effect would be an across the board import tariff of 20% and an export subsidy of 12% would be equivalent to a 15% change in the value of the dollar.

Given that the United States was a $482 billion export market for China last year, that would give a very different hue to the China-US trade relationship. Not surprisingly, talk of a coming China-US trade war is in the air in both countries.

That may be of less import to China than once might have been the case now that it is rebalancing its economy away from cheap-export-led growth and towards domestic consumption, and that trade in services is becoming as important as trade in goods.

Nonetheless, this is probably not a moment to be sanguine about the prospects and the negative impact on China’s growth of a border tax could be material, and felt far wider than in China alone.

However, the new battle lines between Beijing and Washington may be drawn up over national champions as both countries seek to dominate the new industries that will shape the coming global economy. And that will come down to which nation will be better at picking winners — the perennial Achilles Heel of industrial policy.

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Xi Blows Hot And Cold Over Apec

The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit (Apec) in Beijing brought together the leaders of the world’s three biggest national economies, President Xi Jinxing, Japan’s Prime Minister Shintaro Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama. It was not a particularly happy confluence.

While Xi and Abe shook hands  — the first meeting of the leaders of China and Japan for more than two years — the rest of the body language was scarcely cordial. Icy, in fact. The tension over the two nations’ maritime territorial dispute in the East China Sea won’t easily be shaken off.

Obama arrived bearing gifts, extensions to the terms of multiple entry visas, from one year to 10 for business people and tourists, and to five years for students. But while China and South Korea agreed to sign their proposed bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA), the U.S-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) continued to tread water. Nor did the U.S. make any apparent progress in its negotiations to update the 18-year old agreement it has with China on trade in high-tech goods and services.

If anything, in rounding out its FTAs with Japan and the U.S. by signing one with China, South Korea has less need to pursue membership of the TTP with any urgency. While that could be read as score one for Xi, similarly Seoul also has less need to pursue the Beijing-proposed rival to the TTP, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). Washington has been, behind the scenes, resisting that determinedly, though it couldn’t prevent Apec leaders agreeing to a two-year study of the scope of an FTAAP. That wasn’t as much movement towards a drawing up a roadmap as Beijing wanted, but it was still more ground than Washington had wanted to yield.

The summit was Xi’s show, his first big international meeting since he assumed power, and an opportunity to show how China is increasingly dictating the region’s pecking order. In the group photograph at the end of the summit, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is standing next to Xi on his right. The two countries signed a big oil-and-gas deal ahead of the summit and promised further cooperation. Obama is down the line to Xi’s left, halfway to the end of the front row. Abe is relegated to the second row.

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China’s February Export Slump: New Year Distortion Or Full-Year Herald?

LUNAR NEW YEAR always makes forecasting China’s February export numbers something of a lottery. Yet few if any foresaw the 18.1% decline just announced.

Throw in slowing credit growth, the National People’s Congress meeting going as expected — i.e. offering no new answers of how both a 7.5% growth target for the year and reforms to rebalance the economy will be achieved — political tension over Ukraine and the mystery disappearance of the Beijing bound Malaysia Airlines’ passenger jet and it is scant surprise investors, already jittery about growth prospects, have taken umbrage. Shares hit a five year low in Shanghai and the yuan weakened against the dollar, with the ripples being felt in Hong Kong and in U.S markets beyond.

Most forecasters had expected an increase in exports for February, if a modest one. The most recent official purchasing managers index had pointed to weakness in new export orders, thought to be a consequence of the untypically harsh winter in the U.S., China’s second largest export market after the E.U. In addition, exporters tend to front-load their deliveries ahead of the New Year’s holiday when factories are closed for a week or so.

Nonetheless, across January and February taken together exports were down 1.6% while imports rose 10%. That has taken a chunk out of China’s trade surplus. February’s was the largest monthly trade deficit in two years. Across the two months, the surplus was $8.9 billion, down 79.1% on the same period a year earlier.

The question, of course, is whether this is all just a holiday induced blip in long-term deceleration of the growth rate or harbinger of a harder than previously expected braking of the economy. The March trade figures will be looked at closely for clues to the answer.  However, exporters will have to go at it if they are to make good the forecast of the State Information Center, a government think tank affiliated to the top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission. It is forecasting an 8.1% growth in exports in the first quarter, and about 7.5% GDP growth. Investors would be delighted, and surprised.

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China tightens clampdown on fake trade invoicing

HOT MONEY COMING into China in pursuit of rising property prices and in expectation of further yuan appreciation has long concerned authorities for fear it will help inflate bubbles. Periodic efforts are made to clampdown on those speculators skirting the rules for legitimate foreign exchange transactions. In the latest one, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) says it is looking into trade financing to ensure there is real trade behind the foreign exchange being requested.

In July, it was revealed that some Chinese export companies were in effect disguising hot money as trade payments, writing up fake invoices so they could skirt capital controls and make a fast buck speculating on the yuan’s rise. This was going on on a sufficient scale to be affecting the official trade figures.

SAFE cracked down on those, warning trading houses that were cooking their books to get them in order in short order. But it is clear the chicanery, or something like it, is continuing. SAFE lambasted the commercial banks for not being sufficiently vigilant in rooting out the practice among their customers, saying it would now carry out its own assessments. State media says penalties for abuses will be increased — and imposed on both the companies and their bankers.

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Yuan plays an increasingly prominent trade role

The yuan has slipped past the euro to become the second most used currency in trade finance after the U.S. dollar. We are indebted to SWIFT, the financial transaction services company, for this piece of intelligence. Its data is for October. It is a vindication of China’s push to make the currency more reflective of China’s position as a global trading power. However, the dollar still accounts for four out of every five dollars financing global trade, while the yuan accounts for barely one in twelve. In terms of all payments, the yuan ranks twelfth with a less than 1% market share.

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China Uncooks Its Trade Books

That China’s reported trade figures are, to put it mildly, a bit dodgy will come as no surprise. The 21st Century Business Herald has put some numbers on those suspicions.

Quoting commerce ministry sources, the paper says that $75 billion of fake invoicing covering the months of January to April have been uncovered. That is sufficient to change the export growth for that period to 7%, against the 17.4% reported and to cut the corresponding imports number to 6% from the reported 10.6%.

The fake invoicing was part of a scheme by some Chinese companies who were cooking their order books in order to get funds to speculate on the appreciation of the yuan against the dollar. In short, they were disguising hot money as trade payments. This was done by parking goods in Hong Kong and booking them as exports so they could get forex  loans from the banks, or in some cases, it is now clear, by just creating phantom export orders.

Authorities cracked down on the practice in May. The $75 billion figure has been derived by applying May’s trade growth rates to the previous four months for China’s special customs regulation zones, the bonded warehouses in places like Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong.

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China Granted Arctic Council Observer Status

Being granted observer status at the Arctic Council is a significant step forward for China’s trade and energy ambitions on the roof of the world. A northern route through the Arctic would lessen the costs and dangers of shipping Chinese goods to Europe via the traditional and lengthier sea routes through the Moluccan Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa.

Global warming makes alternative northern routes feasible, at least in the summer months, which offer the promise of an ice-free northwestern passage to Europe. It also makes drilling for oil and gas a practical possibility. The region may hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped fossil energy reserves.

Beijing has been beefing up its Arctic research and is building a new high-tech polar expedition ice-breaker due to be in service next year. China already has the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, the Ukraine-built Xue Long (Snow Dragon) which last year made the first passage from China to Iceland through the far north. Chinese mining companies are starting to invest in Greenland’s mineral resources and last month Beijing signed a free trade deal with Iceland, with which it is also cooperating on geothermal energy.

The full members of the Arctic Council — the Nordic countries, Canada, the U.S. and Russia — all have an Arctic coasts, which China self-evidently does not. Observer status, which it now shares with Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore and Italy, gives China the right to listen in on meetings and propose and finance policies.

China’s regional push into Africa and the Indian Ocean has met some resistance. Beijing is likely to continue to move cautiously if determinedly in the Arctic, not least because Russia, with its long Arctic coastline, sees itself as the regional power and energy bridge between Asia and Europe. But as we noted before, few can doubt that China’s mariners, fishermen, scientists and petroleum engineers will be plying the increasingly less icy waters of the Arctic in ever greater number.

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