China Hardens Trade Stance as Talks Enter New Phase

Chinese negotiators emboldened by perception U.S. was willing to compromise

The hardened battle lines were prompted by Beijing’s decision to take a more aggressive stance in negotiations, according to the people following the talks. They said Beijing was emboldened by the perception that the U.S. was ready to compromise.

  1. In particular, these people said, Mr. Trump’s hectoring of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to cut interest rates was seen in Beijing as evidence that the president thought the U.S. economy was more fragile than he claimed.
  2. Beijing was further encouraged by Mr. Trump’s frequent claim of friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and by Mr. Trump’s praise for Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for pledging to buy more U.S. soybeans.

An April 30 tweet, in which Mr. Trump coupled criticism of Mr. Powell with praise of Chinese economic policy, especially caught the eye of senior officials. “China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates.”

Why would you be constantly asking the Fed to lower rates if your economy is not turning weak,” said Mei Xinyu, an analyst at a think tank affiliated with China’s Commerce Ministry. If the U.S.’s resolve was weakening, the thinking in Beijing went, the U.S. would be more willing to cut a deal, even if Beijing hardened its positions.

That assessment, however, flies in the face of a strong U.S. economy. Gross domestic product in the first quarter rebounded from the end of 2018, with growth clocking in at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 3.2%, up from 2.2% the prior quarter. The jobs report for April, released on Friday, showed the unemployment rate falling to 3.6%, the lowest in nearly 50 years.

But at the same time, China’s economy has stabilized this year following months of weakness. Although China’s exports dropped unexpectedly in April, its first-quarter growth came in at 6.4%, beating market expectations. The generally improving economic picture gave Beijing more confidence in trade talks, as did a recent conference on the country’s vast infrastructure-spending program, called the Belt and Road Initiative, which was attended by about 40 heads of government and state.

Chinese leaders saw the conference turnout “as China has more leverage to improve relations with other countries and with the U.S. business community,” said Brookings Institution China specialist Cheng Li. “It made them play hardball.”

If China misread the signals—and vice versa—it wouldn’t be the first time.

The history of U.S.-China trade negotiations is filled with misunderstandings, as the two nations, with very different political systems, struggle to figure out each other’s intentions.

.. In another apparent sign of mixed signals, Trump administration officials had thought they had made it clear that they were weary of negotiations and that it was time for Beijing to make specific commitments to change laws, including adding protections for intellectual property and barring the forced transfer of U.S. technology.

As talks resume Thursday, one big question mark is whether China will agree to U.S. demands for changes in Chinese law to implement the trade deal. Beijing maintains this would impinge on Chinese sovereignty and take too long to implement, but Beijing had made similar commitments in prior trade deals, including those it signed to join the WTO in 2001.

U.S. officials say Beijing has failed to make good on those commitments, while China has promised to further liberalize its economy.

“The U.S. is correct to seek a multiprong approach of not relying solely on commitments but also actually changes to the laws, so as to ensure Chinese leadership intentions are fully conveyed down to all local levels of government,” said Harvard Law Professor Mark Wu.

The Herman Cain Lesson for Trump

The President’s Fed bashing isn’t helping his nominees.

The bigger problem is Mr. Trump’s public assault on the Fed. Mr. Trump has made Mr. Cain’s nomination look like an attempt to undermine Fed independence rather than an attempt to put some fresh monetary thinking on the board. The same is true for our former colleague Stephen Moore, who is also on the receiving end of the left’s politics of personal destruction.

Mr. Trump’s public Fed bashing is a shame because Mr. Cain had a point when writing in our pages last week that the “professor standard,” or letting academics run the Fed, has produced many policy mistakes. The Fed kept interest rates too low for too long in the 2000s, then misjudged the housing market and bank safety, then overestimated the benefits of its bond buying and zero interest rates.

An excellent replacement for Mr. Cain would be economist Judy Shelton, who would bring intellectual diversity and heft without political baggage. Ms. Shelton on Monday pushed back in an op-ed for the Journal against the left’s recent claims that “anyone sympathetic to a gold standard” is unqualified. She’s right that “stable money is a prerequisite for genuine economic growth and shared prosperity.”

Yet as long as Mr. Trump continues his Twitter campaign against Chairman Jerome Powell and the Fed, he’ll be hamstringing his own nominees and the broader case for more intellectual diversity at the Eccles building.

The Fed and the Professor Standard

The central bank needs new voices that will speak up for a stable dollar, which leads to prosperity.

Real income for America’s bottom 90% reached an all-time high in 1999, and at the time Pew Research found that 81% of Americans agreed that free enterprise was a major reason for the country’s success in the 20th century. By June 2015, however, Gallup reported 47% would vote for a socialist.

What happened? Real income for the bottom 90%, as measured for the World Top Incomes Database, declined after 1999 and never rebounded. Two terms each of Republican and Democratic administrations failed to end this stagnation, which says all you need to know about why Donald Trump was elected president. Now wages are rising at robust rates—above 3% a year—thanks to cuts in taxes and regulation, with the largest wage increases going to low-wage workers. And the Federal Reserve has been itching to raise interest rates.

The Fed still operates on the “professor standard,” enshrined with Bill Clinton’s nominations of pure academics. Their textbooks say strong economic growth, particularly strong wage growth, causes inflation, which Fed policy should temper. Both the Bush and Obama administrations perpetuated the professor standard, and both presided over incom

Ending that stagnation is one goal that unites the political spectrum. But do we really expect that to happen under the professor standard? The academics’ favorite tool, the Phillips curve, tells them wage growth that is too strong can cause an outbreak of 1970s-style inflation, as former Fed Chair Janet Yellen alluded in her 2010 Senate confirmation hearing.

I have a different perspective. The professor standard doesn’t work, and the Fed needs new voices to argue for an approach that does.

The 1980s and 1990s brought prosperity across the board. This success was driven by a voting bloc of Fed governors, such as Wayne Angell and Manley Johnson, who favored a stable dollar and were able to swing the consensus. The dollar is a unit of measure—like the foot or the ounce—and keeping units of measure stable is critical to the functioning of a complex economy. The result of their stable-dollar policy was prosperity.

.. Since the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, there have been three distinct periods of sustained dollar stability:

  • 1922-29,
  • 1947-70 and
  • 1983-99.

During these periods, real growth of gross domestic product averaged 3.9% a year and real income growth for the bottom 90% averaged 2.2%, according to calculations done by Rich Lowrie, senior economic adviser to my 2012 presidential campaign. During distinct periods of sustained dollar volatility—in 1913-21, 1930-46, 1971-82 and 2000-15, real GDP growth averaged only 1.9% and real income for the bottom 90% declined by an average of 1.3% annually.

The prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s gave way to stagnation precisely because dollar stability gave way to volatility. Blame the professor standard. Demand for dollars is determined globally on a real-time basis, but the Fed has preferred to look largely at domestic lagging indicators in determining supply. The frequent resulting mismatches cause dollar volatility, which the professor standard then dismisses as transitory.

America’s future prosperity, and especially the end to income stagnation, depends on getting this distinction right. The Fed has the tools to stabilize the dollar. The open-market desk can buy bonds to counter a downward trend in commodity prices and sell bonds to arrest an upward trend, resulting in ongoing stability in the dollar’s commodity value. The only thing missing are voices like Messrs. Angell’s and Johnson’s to advocate for it. If confirmed by the Senate as a Fed governor, I will speak up for dollar stability.

Last September the professor standard led Fed governors to pick up the pace of quantitative tightening and stick to its plan of rate hikes. Never mind that commodity prices were falling, meaning the dollar’s commodity value was rising, a market signal of deflationary pressure. Meanwhile, the forward outlook for industrial production and retail sales indicated signs of slowing rates of growth. This combination of slowing growth and a rising dollar is a deflationary slowdown. These are the worst conditions under which to raise interest rates, yet that’s what happened, not once but twice, presumably because wage growth was deemed “too strong.”

Markets rightly sent the Fed a strong signal to back off, prompting three subsequent dovish pivots. If the Fed listens to markets after the fact, why not listen to them before?

This mistake is not new. Had the Fed responded appropriately to the dollar’s commodity value at the turn of this century, it wouldn’t have tightened the U.S. economy into the 2000 deflationary slowdown, and technology speculation would have resolved itself without taking down the entire economy.

Had the Fed reacted to the dollar’s commodity value coming out of that recession, it wouldn’t have inflated the real-estate bubble, which led to the 2008 financial crisis. After June 2008, the dollar’s skyrocketing commodity value was screaming that there was a sudden, huge, global scramble for dollar-based liquidity. Unfortunately, the market’s cry fell on deaf ears, apparently because the signal hadn’t yet registered in the Fed’s lagging employment and consumer-price indicators. This deflationary pressure ignited the financial inferno that began in September 2008, yet the Fed didn’t begin quantitative easing to put out their fire until that December.

If Congress responds only after a crisis, the Fed’s record indicates it listens to markets only after enough damage has already been inflicted. The results of that policy look even worse in contrast: Show me a financial crisis that happened in America while the dollar’s commodity value was stable.

We need new voices at the Fed that understand stable money and know how to interpret important market signals—and that means breaking the professor standard. Monocultures tend to be fragile, but is the Fed so closed off that it can’t handle challenges to its models or the assumptions that feed them? So fragile it can’t consider that the economy is driven by production, not consumption, and that the dollar’s commodity value is important to the real investment that fuels production? I hope not.

The best way to achieve full employment, price stability, economic growth strong enough to solve our fiscal problems, and sustained income growth for the striving majority is for the Fed to stabilize the dollar. The professor standard will not challenge itself—that much has been proved. That’s why my voice is needed at the Fed.

The Federal Reserve Board Shouldn’t Be a Ph.D.-Only Zone

President Donald Trump’s Fed appointments so far have represented a modest shift away from rule-by-economists. Chairman Jerome Powell and Vice Chairman for Supervision Randal Quarles are both lawyers with a mix of government and private-sector experience. Trump also nominated two economics Ph.D.s with Fed backgrounds, but the Republican Senate never got around to confirming either. Now, of course, he has made known that he wants to nominate Stephen Moore, who has a master’s degree in economics but is known mainly for his political activism — he co-founded and was first president of the Club for Growth, which pushes, often successfully, to elect anti-tax candidates, and was a Trump adviser in the 2016 campaign — and his punditry.

Moore’s punditry, it must be said, gets some pretty dire reviews, even from people who share many of his political views. He “does not have the intellectual gravitas for this important job,” prominent Republican economist N. Gregory Mankiw opined. “The consensus in conservative academic think tank land is that Moore is an enormous hack,” conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote on Twitter.