Tag Archives: trade war

When Elephants Fight, It Is The Grass That Suffers

 

THE WHITE PAPER on China’s membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since it acceded to the world trade body in 2001 released by the State Council Information Office on June 26 implicitly acknowledges how much China has benefited from its membership.

This is all couched in terms of how China has lived up to its membership obligations and is now championing global free trade — an unabashed riding on the coattails of the global backlash against the United States’ protectionist turn.

The latest step in that come today with US tariffs of 25% on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods from ball bearings to lithium batteries coming into effect and China retaliating by imposing a similar 25% tariff on 545 US products, also worth a total of $34 billion, and likely to focus on agricultural products.

US President Donald Trump had previously threatened a 10% levy on an additional $200 billion of Chinese goods if Beijing’s trading practices remain unchanged, and raised the stakes on Thursday by saying that more than $500 billion of Chinese exports could be tariff targets.

Should that happen, Beijing may resort to non-tariff retaliation in forms such as more expensive and lengthy customs inspections and consumer boycotts of US products, as it did last year to South Korea’s Lotte Group.

That would be a display of patriotic citizen loyalty that the United States would be unable to match and may point to the Achilles’ heel of Trump’s belief that he can push hard on trade because the U.S. holds the strongest hand and thus the rest of the world will, ultimately, back down.

Two days before the imposition of these latest tariffs, the WTO reported that in the seven months to May, trade restrictions imposed by the G20 had doubled over the previous reporting period. These include tariff increases, stricter customs procedures and imposition of taxes and export duties.

In a nod to its purpose, the WTO noted that during the seven months reported on (so they do not include the latest tariffs), trade liberalisation measures taken by G20 members covered $82.7 billion of trade, versus the $74.1 billion affected by trade restrictions. But the gap is narrowing rapidly.

The WTO’s report is blunt in saying that further escalation of protectionism — measures and rhetoric — could carry potentially large risks for the global trading system itself:

At a juncture where the global economy is finally beginning to generate sustained economic momentum following the global financial crisis, the uncertainty created by a proliferation of trade restrictive actions could place economic recovery in jeopardy. The multilateral trading system was built to resolve such problems and it has the tools to do so again. However, further escalation could carry potentially large risks for the system itself. Its resilience and functionality in the face of these challenges will depend on each and every one of its Members. The G20 economies must use all means at their disposal to de-escalate the situation and promote further trade recovery.

Trump’s antipathy for the WTO — beyond a general belief that all multilateral organisations exist to do down the United States — is that it has provided China with a mechanism to create the vast trade surpluses with the United States on which he is now waging trade war.

Our man in Washington tells us that in private Trump repeatedly says that United States should get out of the WTO because it is anti-American and recalls the president on the campaign trail in 2016 calling the WTO a “disaster”.

Perversely, because the US-created the system and has lots of effective lawyers at the WTO, it does better than most when it comes to dispute resolution at the WTO. According to this year’s Economic Report for the President, the US has had an 85.7% success rate in cases it has initiated before the WTO since 1995, compared with a global average of 84.4% and China’s 66.7%. And it wins 25% of the cases brought against it, compared to the overall average successful defence rate of 16.6%.

Whether Trump would push the destruct button on the WTO remains an open question, though he is constrained to an extent in that the US Congress would have to pass legislation for the United States to leave the organisation.

Doing so would send both world trade and world financial markets into a tailspin. Stockmarket indices are scoreboards that get Trump’s attention. A deal to ‘fix’ the WTO might appeal more to him, especially if markets react badly to this latest round of tariffs.

For all the rightful concern, the US tariffs so far are tiny in the global scheme of things, affecting the equivalent of 0.6% of global trade and accounting for 0.1% of global GDP, according to Morgan Stanley.  The collapse of the WTO would be on an altogether greater scale.

Meanwhile, Beijing will continue to play its long game and to occupy the moral high ground over the WTO, its belief in its ability to outlast Trump as unshakeable as Trump’s belief that it cannot.

 

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Not-So-Easy Trade Wars

TRADE WARS MIGHT, as US President Donald Trump says, be easy to win (although this Bystander, for one, doubts it), but some of the terrain that has to be to yomped across is complicated and treacherous. Take the example of semiconductor equipment manufacturers.

The direct costs that result from the tariffs the United States is imposing on China and the ones that China is imposing on US firms in retaliation would be unwelcome but manageable for the three leading listed US semiconductor equipment manufacturers, Applied Materials, Lam Research and KLA-Tenco.

The trio’s China business earned them $5.4 billion in the year to end-March, 2018, according to calculations by the rating agency Moody’s. That was equivalent to 18% of their total revenue. Although that was 41% up on a year earlier, their business overall seems to have been growing at a similar rate.

These are good times to be making the equipment that makes chips, as it should be given global chip sales have increased by one-third since 2016, and are forecast to be a $460 billion market this year.

This is where things start to get complicated for trade hawks. Only about one-third of the three US firms’ China revenue comes from indigenous Chinese chipmakers, Moody’s reckons; the balance comes from multinationals that manufacture semiconductors in China, such as Intel and Samsung. (That is in line with the overall rule of thumb that holds that about two-thirds of world trade is accounted for by value and supply chains.)

US-based multinational chipmakers manufacturing in China could apply for US exemptions from US tariffs for the components they export back to the United States, though that would do nothing for reducing the headline trade deficit figure by which the US president sets so much score.

China could even ban such export sales. There is no indication Beijing is considering doing so should it come to it, but who knows what symbolic gestures will be made?

Absent a trade war, US semiconductor equipment manufacturers could expect steadily growing sales in China both to indigenous and multinational companies. Prospects would be particularly bright for the next several years among Chinese companies as Beijing is pushing the development of an indigenous chipmaking industry under Made in China 2025 to wean the country off its dependence on the United States for this critical technology. China will make its own chips first, then later the equipment to make them.

In the event of a trade war, Moody’s estimates, the three would lose $660 million of business from Chinese companies this year and $775 million in 2019.

At the end of this month, the Trump administration is set to announce new rules to curb Chinese access to critical US technology. While investments in the United States by any company with at least 25% Chinese ownership will be at the forefront, restrictions on exports of technology by US firms are also likely.

Limits to the three US firms’ freedom to sell their chipmaking equipment to Chinese companies would be a significantly more serious threat to them than tariffs. That might be appealing to the Trump administration as a way of delaying China’s drive to self-sufficiency in chip-making. There are no ready alternatives to the three US companies to which Chinese firms can turn.

But that, in turn, could force China to speed up the development of its own manufacture of semiconductor-making equipment.

So who wins? There is no uncomplicated answer.

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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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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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China Tries To Mend US Relations While Preparing For Trade War 

TRADE WARS ARE good, and easy to win, tweets US President Donald Trump.

This Bystander would contend that trade wars are bad, and no one wins.

The United States’ plan to impose across-the-board tariffs of 25% on imports of steel and 10% on those of aluminium following a Section 232 investigation will have less effect on Chinese exporters than those from many other countries, despite the fact that Beijing bears the brunt of Trump’s rhetoric about ‘unfair trade’.

China now ranks tenth in the list of sources of US steel imports, at 2.9% of the total — one place below Taiwan (3.2%) and far below table-topping Canada (16.7%). The United States is the world’s biggest steel import market at 35.6 million tonnes (2017), but China’s exports had already fallen by 30% from the previous year following Obama-era anti-dumping duties imposed two years ago. In only one category of steel imports, long products (rebars, drawn wire and the like), is China a top-five supplier.

The US import market for aluminium is smaller, at 6.8 million tonnes a year. China ranks fourth in the foreign suppliers list, with an 8.8% share of imports. Canada, again, tops the list, followed by Russia and the UAE.

Beijing’s public response to the Trump administration’s announcement has been the expected call for restraint, urging the United States to abide by multilateral trade rules and do nothing to damage the fragile global economic recovery. It is also quite content for the EU to take up the running as the belligerent critic in this case.

Behind the scenes, there is a growing sense of urgency about the probability of further such measures to come from Washington and the countermeasures that might have to be taken.

Chart of US exports to China by category, 2016. Source: MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity.

The Ministry of Commerce is already investigating imports from the United States of sorghum, a cereal grain used to feed livestock, in response to previous tariffs from the White House on solar panels and washing machines.

Agricultural products are a fat target for Beijing to retaliate against. The scale of farm trade between the two countries is large, and US farmers have a heavy reliance on the Chinese market. The US runs a nearly $17 billion trade surplus with China in agricultural products.

US soya beans would be the bullseye, as the chart below of US vegetable product exports to China shows (the chart, like the one above is drawn from MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity data). They account for $14.2 billion of the $21.4 billion of annual US agricultural products exports to China (2016 figures) — or 12% of total US exports to China. The second biggest export category, ‘coarse grains’, essentially sorghum in this context, is only a $1 billion export market for US farmers.

Chart of US vegetable products exports to China, 2016

An alternative target for Beijing could be in aerospace. China is one of the largest export markets for US aerospace products, with sales of $13.2 billion in 2016, accounting for 58% of China’s total imports in the aviation sector. This would be a political target in that it would hit the high-skilled industrial jobs in the United States at companies like Boeing that Trump has said his America First trade policies are intended to restore.

The word doing the rounds (admittedly with no firm evidence) is that if tariffs start to cost Chinese exporters $10 billion a year that will be the trigger point for retaliation.

More tariffs are likely to be forthcoming from the Trump administration. As we have noted before, the president is ‘itching’ to impose tariffs on China. Trade is the one issue on which he appears to have long-standing, consistent and deep beliefs that foreign competitors and large trade deficits ‘cheat’ the United States. Also, ahead of November’s midterm Congressional elections, he needs to motivate his voting base, which holds China to the root of all the ill that has befallen it since the global financial crisis.

The steel and aluminium tariffs would follow a series of duties already announced on a range of goods including the solar panels washing machines mentioned above.

The particular concern in Beijing now is a Section 301 investigation into China’s practices in technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation. The Trump administration has already moved to constrain inward direct investment that would give Chinese companies access to US technology. The number of Chinese acquisitions of US tech firms in 2017 was 12% down from its 2015 peak.

While some of that can be attributed to tighter Chinese capital controls, on the US side, this has been achieved both formally through regulatory intervention and informally by, for example, Congress leaning on US telecoms firms AT&T and Verizon not to buy equipment from Huawei and ZTE — and the administration pressing allies to follow suit (though how imposing trade tariffs against allies like Canada, Japan and South Korea engenders the necessary goodwill is difficult to see).

Beijing’s efforts to re-engage the diplomatic and back-channels through which the economic relationship with Washington has been more or less successfully managed for many years are proving less fruitful, despite an assiduous courting of Trump from the outset of his presidency. In many cases, long-standing working points of contact between US and Chinese officials have halted.

Liu He, the Harvard educated economist who is close to President Xi Jinping and the architect of much of China’s economic policymaking since Xi came to power, was in Washington this week. He met senior administration officials, including US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, but not, notably, Trump, in what looks like a calculated snub on the president’s part.

There is no doubt to this Bystander’s mind that Trump’s realization of America First through measures such as tariffs moves the global economy into more dangerous territory because the risk of a tit-for-tat trade war is escalated.

Redefining protectionism as a matter of US national security rather than as a matter of economic fairness, as the steel and aluminium tariffs will do, allows all countries to claim the same.

This is the new world of hard-power realism, and it will have its costs, perhaps very heavy ones.

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