Category Archives: Trade

When Declaring Victory Is Not The Same As Wining A Trade War

Made in China label. Photo credit: Martin Abegglen, 2010. Licenced under Creative Commons.

CHINA HAS IMMEDIATELY retaliated against the first tranche of the 25% tariffs on $50 billion a year of Chinese exports to the United States announced by the Trump administration.

China will impose an matching tariff on 659 categories of US imports worth $50 billion a year, effective July 6. Vehicle and aircraft parts and vegetables account for the bulk of the targeted imports.

The Trump administration on Friday said its tariffs would come into effect on July 6 and cover more than 800 types of Chinese exports worth $34 billion a year. The largest category of goods affected are machinery, mechanical appliances and electrical equipment (full list). The White House says the remaining $16 billion of exports to be targeted will be announced later.

It is imposing the tariffs for what it deems unacceptable and unfair intellectual property and technology transfer practices by China that it has said cost the US economy $225 billion-600 billion a year.

There is, however, careful calibration on the United States part of these actions. It has reduced its original list of 1,300 targeted categories to focus on those sectors Beijing is promoting as part of its ‘Made In China 2025’ plan to develop advanced industries and to minimize the impact through international supply chains on domestic US industries. Some of the 500 categories removed from the list were done so following lobbying by US importers.

Beijing, for its part, has taken aim at the most politically sensitive US industries. where it believes it can have most impact on US President Donald Trump’s electoral support in rural areas and the Rustbelt.

US restrictions on Chinese firms’ investment in the United States are expected to be announced at the end of the month.

The president’s advisor on trade and manufacturing policy, Peter Navarro, says that the ‘era of American complacency’ on trade is over. But there is an old adage about how generals always fight the last war. The Trump administration’s tariffs seem to be doing the same thing.

International supply chains mean much of the value of the goods China exports is not added in China, so they hurt the non-Chinese part of the supply chain as much or more as the Chinese part.

Furthermore, policymakers may not care too much if the United States tries to choke off the sales of its cheap products; they want Chinese companies to export the higher value-added goods the US actions will push them towards making (and they have plenty of alternative markets in which to sell both cheap and more expensive products; the US accounts for only one-quarter of China’s exports).

Meanwhile, China’s industry has developed to the point that in sectors such as artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles it is already internationally competitive. Intellectual property protection is now more important to its companies than intellectual property theft.

Trump may end up declaring victory in this particular trade war by being able to show he is being ‘tough on China’ and cutting the headline number of the bilateral goods trade deficit, but it will be China that actually wins the war.

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The US Resumes Its Trade War With China

WE SAID EARLIER this month after the United States put its trade war with China on hold that that would last only until US President Trump tweets that “it is back on, or was never off or is over”.

We have moved into the ‘back on’ phase.

The Trump administration says it plans to impose 25% tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports by the end of June. The list of goods to be subject to the tariff will be published on June 15. The announcement also promises specific investment restrictions and enhanced export controls on “industrially significant technology”.

In a rather resigned-sounding comment, the Commerce Ministry said it was both “surprised and unsurprised” by the announcement.

Wilbur Ross, secretary of its US opposite number, is due in Beijing later this week for a follow-up round of talks to those earlier in the month that led US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to say that the Trump administration would hold off imposing tariffs on up to $150 billion in Chinese imports for alleged violations of US American intellectual property and unfair trade practices as the two sides were making progress towards a ‘framework’ for cutting China’s $375 billion merchandise trade surplus with the United States.

So the latest White House announcement may be Trump indulging in his new favourite negotiating tactic of cutting up rough ahead of talks.

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Mapping The Belt And Road

Mercator Institute of China Studies map of China's Belt and Road Initiative

 

The useful map above is produced by The Mercator Institute for China Studies, the German think tank that is the largest in Europe with an exclusive focus on China.

There has been a sharp uptick in recent weeks in expressions of concern by US politicians outside the traditional China-hawks about Beijing’s long-term plans to expand its global power through infrastructure development and finance and by building up its military.

In February, The Mercator Institute published a report suggesting that Europe should have similar concerns about how Beijing is expanding its influence in Europe in support of those aims through the use of ‘sharp power’ — the offensive use of soft power tools aimed at political and economic elites, media and public opinion, and civil society and academia.

 

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Trump’s 540 Degree Turn On ZTE

THIS BYSTANDER FRANKLY admits to being confused.

US companies were banned earlier this year from selling components to telecoms equipment maker ZTE for seven years on national security grounds, export business worth several hundred millions of dollars. This sanction led to ZTE, which relied on US companies for up to 30% of the components of its phones, ceasing operations, prompting President Xi Jinping to ask his US counterpart to reconsider the penalty. US President Donald Trump then asked his Commerce Department to reconsider the penalty, seemingly as part of a prospective broader trade deal between the two countries.

Now, following criticism from both Democrats and fellow Republicans after the recent US-China trade talks that he is losing the trade war against China, Trump says what he wants is an additional heavy fine and a requirement that ZTE  “buy a big percentage of their parts and equipment from American companies”.

Wasn’t buying US-made components the national-security concern that led to the sanctions on ZTE in the first place?

We understand that US export sales and jobs are at issue, but we are still left scratching ourheads. But such contradictions seem to be the hallmark of Trump’s trade and foreign policy.

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United States Puts Trade War On Hold

THE US-CHINA trade war is on hold. Official. Or official, at least until the US president tweets that it is back on, or was never off or is over.

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says the Trump administration will not, for now, impose tariffs on up to $150 billion in Chinese imports for alleged violations of US American intellectual property and unfair trade practices. The rationale, according to Mnuchin, who was speaking on one of the United States’ Sunday morning TV talk shows, is the progress made in last week’s trade talks towards a ‘framework’ for cutting the $375 billion merchandise trade surplus with the United States.

High-level US trade officials met their opposite numbers from Beijing in Washington last Thursday and Friday, which was followed by a communique that vowed that neither side would launch a trade war against the other.

China said it would buy more agricultural and energy products from the US as part of a substantial cut in its trade surplus with the United States, which will include still-to-be-discussed purchases of US manufactures and services.

Both of those, and particularly the latter, require structural reforms on Beijing’s part likely to come later rather than sooner.

Beijing said it would drop it anti-dumping investigation into US sorghum, but that at best will protect existing US exports now at risk, rather than create new business in itself. Also, while the US has plenty of energy, particularly liquefied natural gas, it could sell China it would have to build distribution infrastructure to deliver it. Privately, US trade officials say it could take three to five years to double US energy exports to China.

Sales of agricultural commodities could be ramped up within a crop season, however. China bought $19.6 billion-worth of US farm produce in 2017, making it US farmers’ second largest foreign market. The United States is hoping for a 40% increase this year. If that comes about, there will be only another $188 billion to go to the $200 billion cut in the trade surplus that the United States reportedly seeks.

Beijing also promised to address US concerns about intellectual property protections (although that is pushing against an open door given that Chinese firms have an increasing amount of intellectual property of their own to protect these days).

Whatever short-term concessions might be made to provide Trump with an arithmetical win on the trade deficit, Beijing will do nothing that compromises its Made in China 2025 industrial policy, which is the real war.

Meanwhile, our man in Washington sends word that President Donald Trump’s U-turn on sanctions against telecoms equipment maker ZTE got a rebuff from the US Congress last week.

The House Appropriations Committee snuck into an appropriations bill an amendment that forbids the Commerce Department from changing the sanctions on ZTE that it imposed last month for trading with Iran and North Korea.

The inclusion of a seven-year ban on US companies selling components to ZTE has led the company to cease operations, and it was that ban that Trump, surprisingly, a week ago ordered the Commerce Department to rescind and replace with a less onerous alternative.

There is a long distance between an amendment being passed in committee and making it into law, a distance few such amendments survive. However, even getting past the first step, acceptance into a bill, shows how driven US-China trade relations are going to be on the US side by domestic politics, and especially in the run-up to November’s mid-term Congressional elections.

The Democrats — and it was one of their number, Dutch Ruppersberger, a Congressman representing a district in Baltimore, that proposed the amendment — are attacking Trump’s policies at every turn, scenting the opportunity to recapture control of at least one house of Congress from the Republicans in the mid-terms.

This partisan dimension further complicates the already complex trade relationship between the two countries. There may be no war-war for now, but there will be plenty of jaw-jaw.

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Asian Development Bank Pushes Beijing On Tax Reform

Headquarters of the Asian Development Bank in Manila, Philippines, seen in 2016. Photo credit: ADB. Licenced under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

CHINA’S ECONOMY WILL grow by 6.6% this year and 6.4% next, according the Asian Development Bank’s newly published Outlook 2018. That is pretty much in line with the most recent revised OECD forecasts from mid-March.

The ADB sees strong consumer spending, rising exports and steady public spending underpinning current growth. It also joins the chorus calling for tax and other structural reforms to ensure that growth is both inclusive and sustainable as it resumes its measured glide path of slowing under the effects of excess-capacity reduction, the gradual resolution of the debt problem and the shift of growth drivers from capital accumulation to total factor productivity, to give a more technical description of the rebalancing of the economy.

In summary, the ADB says:

PRC growth accelerated on strong demand from home and abroad. The service sector grew by 8% on buoyant domestic demand, and net exports expanded as trade in intermediate manufactures rebounded. Assuming mildly tighter monetary and fiscal policies in the PRC, growth is expected to moderate from 6.9% in 2017 to 6.6% in 2018 and 6.4% in 2019. Further progress on reforms such as strengthening financial sector regulation and supervision, and addressing debt issues would lay a foundation for solid macroeconomic stability.

The ADB highlights the importance of services to rebalancing. In 2017, it notes, services were already the main driver of growth, expanding 8%, up from 7.7% the previous year, and contributing 4.0 percentage points to GDP growth. In contrast, industrial growth slowed to 6.1% last year from 2016’s 6.3%, and industry’s contribution fell to 2.5 percentage points.

The services sector also kept the labour market buoyant, creating 13.5 million new urban jobs last year (exceeding the official target of 11 million). But prices in the service sector are rising, meaning that inflation did not cool as much as it might otherwise. Consumer prices rose 1.6% in 2017, against 2% a year earlier. The ADB thinks inflation will pick up this year, to 2.4%, as consumer demand strengthens.

The ADB also notes in passing that services comprise barely 51% of GDP, low by international standards. As investment, in contrast, at almost 40%, is comparatively high, there is ample scope for further ‘rebalancing’.

The risks to the ADB’s forecast are pretty straightforward: a trade war with the United States, which could undercut exports and investment. It is not particularly worried about the tariffs the Trump administration imposed on steel and aluminium imports, seeing an unintended benign consequence of measures to tackle the corporate debt issue:

Prices for aluminum and iron ore (iron being the bulk of stainless steel) rose by 23% in 2017. This raised profits in the producers’ home economies more than enough to offset the impact of tariffs, had they been imposed a year earlier. Profits in heavy industry, including large steel producers in the PRC, rose by 21% in 2017 thanks to higher prices and government-imposed production quotas, allowing these industries to service their debt and reduce borrowing while trying to shed excess capacity. Thus, these producers should be able to manage lower demand expected from the US, given the small share of exports to the US directly affected.

However, it is the United States’ next round of tariffs on Chinese exports of intermediate inputs, especially for renewable energy, electricity generation and electrical and optical equipment, that is the immediate concern as they could undermine the business and consumer optimism. Absent Trump’s ‘massive trade deal’ with China, these will take effect in the next few months and would play directly into investment intentions, and especially those connected to US firms’ links to Asian value chains in manufacturing.

The double risk is that a strengthening dollar on the back of rising US interest rates could also spur greater capital outflows, irrespective of authorities’ discouragement.

However, the ADB believes, the government’s fiscal strength and political will enable the economy to weather any squalls. The question for this Bystander is how stormy the trade can weather get.

The particular area for structural reform tha is exercising the ADB is tax:

[The] ratio of tax revenue to GDP has stagnated at 17.5%, with heavy dependence on indirect taxes in the PRC atypical at its stage of development. The authorities there should broaden the tax base while ensuring that the revenue system is progressive.

The average tax revenue to GPP figure for OECD countries is 25%, and even in the ten emerging economies of the G20 countries, it is 21%. The combination of falling tax revenue and rising expenditure translates into rising budget deficits for Beijing, more public debt and thus contingent liabilities.

The ADB suggests that there is there is substantial potential to raise more revenue from personal income taxes, which are now paid by fewer than one in five wage earners. Personal exemptions are twice the annual average national wage, and the top rate (45%) kicks in at 35 times the annual average national wage. OECD averages are for personal exemptions of one quarter the average annual national wage and top marginal rates starting at four times that level.

This indicates some easy changes that could be made to broaden the income tax base and make it more progressive. (which are in train as was signalled at last month’s National Peoples Congress sessions). Structural tax reform is also central to tackling income inequality, a central concern of the Xi administration.

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One Trade War, Two Playbooks

WHAT IF CHINA and the United States are playing a different game over trade even as they stare each other down over tit-for-tat tariffs?

US President Donald Trump may well be following his well-tried playbook of creating maximum chaos with hardball threats and maximalist demands and then playing matters by ear as he seeks to negotiate the deal he wants.

Trump indeed hints at working on “a massive deal” with China, but China says there are no such negotiations and Trump’s new chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, confirms that, telling Bloomberg TV that he hopes there will such discussions in the next couple of months.

China, on the other hand, may just be waiting by the river, knowing that if it waits long enough, as the Sun Tzu playbook has it, the bodies of its enemies will float by.

If, as this Bystander believes, this is all really about control of the technologies that will determine economic prosperity in the future, then the long game is the one to be playing.

Little need to win the trade battle when the goal is to win the economic war.

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