Two months ago, when Zooming In did a story on Huawei and global 5G deployment, Huawei was poised to take control of much of the world’s cyber domain. We talked about the national security implications of that prospect. And we observed the U.S. efforts to raise awareness of that risk. Two months later, when we did another story on this topic, we realized the world knows Huawei a lot better through these efforts, but Huawei’s momentum has not stopped. In fact, Huawei and China are playing a grander game. They have a brilliant strategy that is working well with the very nature of a crony capitalism. Can this battle still be won by the free world? And what does it take to win? Let’s find out in this edition of Zooming In.
welcome back to cheddar business
everyone on Monday saw the Dow suffer
its worst one-day drop since January 3rd
while the SP and the Nasdaq hadn’t seen
a day like it since early December
joining us now is David Stockman he’s
the former director of the Office of
Management and Budget under President
Ronald Reagan he’s also the author of
peak Trump the under a noble swamp and
the fantasy of manga David it’s great to
have you on chatter happy to be here
look a huge sell-off yesterday right
what do you make of the escalation of
the trade war between the US and China
well I think yesterday was a wake-up
call I don’t think this trade war is
going to end anytime soon
you got two fundamentally incompatible
economies you have a policy being driven
by you know a guy who’s you know lost
his lunch I think Trump has no clue what
he’s doing he’s sliding by the seat of
his pants he’s a hopeless protectionist
he doesn’t really know what he wants and
he has no clue how this is going to
unfold so I think we have big trouble
so why do Republicans the party of
Reagan right why do they seem to be
going along with Trump I think they’re
going along with Trump because the GDP
was had a three in it last quarter and
because we’re at the end of a business
cycle where the whole economy looks good
my point in peak Trump is the peak is
behind us the market peaked last
September at 29 41 we’re now triple peak
I don’t think we’re going back the
economy’s in month 118 of the longest
weakest expansion in history we got
headwinds everywhere we got a federal
debt that’s out of control we have a Fed
that waited way too long to tighten and
now doesn’t know what to do
we have Europe which i think is rolling
over into another recession we have what
I call the red ponzi and China’s
struggling with 40 trillion of debt none
of these things suggest there’s smooth
sailing ahead I think they all suggest
that there’s a huge risk that some kind
of Black Swan or orange Swan is the case
maybe is likely to upset the whole apple
cart you have to assume that recessions
haven’t been outlawed
and what’s going to happen when we get a
recession and the markets way up in the
stratosphere and the federal budget is
already running 1.2 trillion of red ink
and then revenue falls and expenditures
soar we’re gonna have the biggest mess
you can ever imagine so given all these
headwinds that you listed out you said
recessions haven’t been outlawed do you
think this is do you think Trump is
aware of these factors do you think he
feels the pressure to get a trade deal
done with China do you think he’s
capable of getting a deal done that will
be beneficial for US markets no I think
he’s delusional he thinks he has far
more power that he’s far more skilled at
the art of the deal in negotiation that
than he really is and so I don’t think
any deal is going to get done at all and
I think he believes the economy is far
stronger than it actually is because
we’ve had some aberration in the numbers
which aren’t sustainable in other words
we’ve had some inventory build-up and
we’ve had all this turmoil and trade
that pulled imports forward if you
strain that out the economy is growing
at less than 2% a year it’s not a boom
if you actually look at Trump’s first 28
report cards on jobs 200 2,000 per month
Obama‘s last 28 report cards before the
220,000 per month there’s been no
acceleration there’s no boom what we
have is an aging business cycle this
company to the end of the road and we’ve
done nothing to get prepared for the
trouble that’s ahead what is the Fed
going to do the interest rate is only
two point four percent and Trump is
complaining its balance sheet is still
almost four trillion what is the fiscal
policy going to do when we’re already
locked in to a borrowing rate at the end
the tippy-top of a business cycle of 1.2
trillion a year we’ve never been in
these circumstances before and so
therefore I think we have to get over
this recency bias which says well last
couple quarters look pretty good so
what’s to worry there’s everything to
worry because the last 30 years have
been taking us to a point of
much speculation in so much debt now
remember we had the financial crisis
people don’t even remember that anymore
but we did have it in 208 and they said
it was a wake-up call we got too much
debt we need to deleverage right well
there was 53 trillion of debt on the US
economy then this is mid 208 public
private business households government
today it’s 72 trillion all right we went
from 53 trillion which was too high to
73 trillion we’ve added 20 trillion debt
that did give us the kind of you know
appearance of a recovery in prosperity
but really we only doubled down and now
we’re gonna face the music in a far
weaker position with a madman in the
Oval Office who’s home alone and what I
mean by that is who are his advisers
nowadays okay I mean Steve minuchin is
an 80-pound political weakling who gives
yes-men a bad name okay Larry Kudlow has
been snorting bullish ethers down on
Wall Street for so long that he’s not
even in the economist Peter Navarro
would rather have a real war with China
rather than a trade war and you know
Wilbur Ross may have a heartbeat or not
I don’t know but he’s he’s as bad in
terms of trade policy as Trump so it’s
all being run by Bob light Howser who I
know from way back when I was on Capitol
Hill and in the Reagan White House in
the early 80s he’s a lifelong swamp
creature who wants to make government
bigger and better and more intrusive and
that’s the kind of trade deal he wants
it’s really for a big business it’s not
for jobs in the economy what do you
think Reagan would think of President
Trump he would be horrified he would be
horrified because Ronald Reagan was a
small government guy he was a free trade
guy he was a free-market guy he believed
you know rectitude and he was not for
hectoring the Fed for easy money when
Volker put on the brakes and interest
rates went into you know double digits
Ronald Reagan said we have to do it we
got to bite the bullet we got to get rid
of this inflation and let the Fed
restore sound money
so everything that Reagan stood for
Trump is really against okay
he is a hopeless mercantilist
protectionist he is the worst big
spender we’ve ever had in the Oval
Office on the Republican side and you
know he’s he’s a bombastic yes I guess I
go back to my earlier question I just
have a trouble understanding why
Republicans are buying into this and why
Republicans Senators and Representatives
don’t stand up for the party and stand
up for the legacy of the Republican
Party against Trump I could give you an
anecdote from my own history in January
1973 I was a young guy on Capitol Hill
Nixon was riding high he had won the
election 44 million – twenty-eight
million wasn’t a squeaker squeaker like
Trump but swept the whole electoral
college he told his whole cabinet you
got to resign I’m so strong I don’t need
you and within 18 months they had him on
the helicopter and sending him out of
town because the economy went down in
the interim in other words as long as
the economy was showing decent numbers
the Republicans kept quiet and when the
economy and the stock market went down
38 percent they were gone we only have
10 seconds for this answer but is there
a challenger to trump you’re behind
right now probably not okay well come
back when there is okay a former
director of the Office of Management and
Budget under President Ronald Reagan
he’s also the author of peak Trump he
under a noble swamp and the fantasy of
Nagas thank you so much for joining us
Protectionism is worse when it’s erratic and unpredictable.
The “very stable genius” in the Oval Office is, in fact, extremely unstable, in word and deed. That’s not a psychological diagnosis, although you can make that case too. It’s just a straightforward description of his behavior. And his instability is starting to have serious economic consequences.
To see what I mean about Trump’s behavior, just consider his moves on China trade over the past month, which have been so erratic that even those of us who follow this stuff professionally have been having a hard time keeping track.
First, Trump unexpectedly announced plans to greatly expand the range of Chinese goods subject to tariffs. Then he had his officials declare China a currency manipulator — which happens to be one of the few economic sins of which the Chinese are innocent. Then, perhaps fearing the political fallout from the higher prices of many consumer goods from China during the holiday season, which would result from the tariff hikes, he postponed — but didn’t cancel — them.
Wait, there’s more. China, predictably, responded to the new United States tariffs with new tariffs on U.S. imports. Trump, apparently enraged, declared that he would raise his tariffs even higher, and declared that he was ordering U.S. companies to wind down their business in China (which is not something he has the legal authority to do). But at the Group of 7 summit in Biarritz he suggested that he was having “second thoughts,” only to have the White House declare that he actually wished he had raised tariffs even more.
And we’re not quite done. On Monday Trump said that the Chinese had called to indicate a desire to resume trade talks. But there was no confirmation from the Chinese, and Trump has been a notably unreliable narrator of what’s going on in international meetings. For example, he made the highly improbable claim that “World Leaders” (his capitalization) were asking him, “Why does the American media hate your Country so much?”
To repeat, all of this has happened just this month. Now imagine yourself as a business leader trying to make decisions amid this Trumpian chaos.
The truth is that protectionism gets something of an excessively bad rap. Tariffs are taxes on consumers, and they tend to make the economy poorer and less efficient. But even high tariffs don’t necessarily hurt employment, as long they’re stable and predictable: the jobs lost in industries that either rely on imported inputs or depend on access to foreign markets can be offset by job gains in industries that compete with imports.
History is, in fact, full of examples of economies that combined high tariffs with more or less full employment: America in the 1920s, Britain in the 1950s and more.
But unstable, unpredictable trade policy is very different. If your business depends on a smoothly functioning global economy, Trump’s tantrums suggest that you should postpone your investment plans; after all, you may be about to lose access to your export markets, your supply chain or both. It’s also, though, not a good time to invest in import-competing businesses; for all you know, Trump will eventually back down on his threats. So everything gets put on hold — and the economy suffers.
One question you might ask is why Trumpian trade uncertainty is looming so much larger now than it did during the administration’s first two years. Part of the answer, I think, is that until fairly recently most analysts expected the U.S.-China trade conflict to be resolved with minimal disruption. You may recall that after denouncing Nafta as the worst trade deal ever made, Trump essentially surrendered and declared victory, settling for a new deal almost indistinguishable from the old one. Most economic newsletters I get predicted a similar outcome for the U.S. and China.
At the same time, the U.S. economy is slowing as the brief sugar high from the 2017 tax cut wears off. Another leader might engage in some self-reflection. Trump being Trump, he’s blaming others and lashing out. He has declared both Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, enemies. As it turns out, however, there’s nothing much he can do to bully the Fed, but the quirks of U.S. trade law do allow him to slap new tariffs on China.
Of course, Trump’s trade belligerence is itself contributing to the economic slowdown. So there’s an obvious possibility for a vicious circle. The economy weakens; a flailing Trump lashes out at China, and possibly others (Europe may be next); this further weakens the economy; and so on.
At that point you might expect an intervention from the grown-ups in the room — but there aren’t any. In any other administration Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a.k.a. the Lego Batman guy, would be considered a ridiculous figure; these days, however, he’s as close as we get to a voice of economic rationality. But whenever he tries to talk sense, as he apparently did over the issue of Chinese currency manipulation, he gets overruled.
Protectionism is bad; erratic protectionism, imposed by an unstable leader with an insecure ego, is worse. But that’s what we’ll have as long as Trump remains in office.
The smart money thinks Trumponomics is a flop.
Last year, after an earlier stock market swoon brought on by headlines about the U.S.-China trade conflict, I laid out three rules for thinking about such events.
- First, the stock market is not the economy.
- Second, the stock market is not the economy.
- Third, the stock market is not the economy.
But maybe I should add a fourth rule: The bond market sorta kinda is the economy.
An old economists’ joke says that the stock market predicted nine of the last five recessions. Well, an “inverted yield curve” — when interest rates on short-term bonds are higher than on long-term bonds — predicted six of the last six recessions. And a plunge in long-term yields, which are now less than half what they were last fall, has inverted the yield curve once again, with the short-versus-long spread down to roughly where it was in early 2007, on the eve of a disastrous financial crisis and the worst recession since the 1930s.
Neither I nor anyone else is predicting a replay of the 2008 crisis. It’s not even clear whether we’re heading for recession. But the bond market is telling us that the smart money has become very gloomy about the economy’s prospects. Why? The Federal Reserve basically controls short-term rates, but not long-term rates; low long-term yields mean that investors expect a weak economy, which will force the Fed into repeated rate cuts.
So what accounts for this wave of gloom? Much though not all of it is a vote of no confidence in Donald Trump’s economic policies.
You may recall that last year, after a couple of quarters of good economic news, Trump officials were boasting that the 2017 tax cut had laid the foundation for many years of high economic growth.
Since then, however, the data have pretty much confirmed what critics had been saying all along. Yes, the tax cut gave the economy a boost — a “sugar high.” Running trillion-dollar deficits will do that. But the boost was temporary. In particular, the promised boom in business investment never materialized. And now the economy has reverted, at best, to its pre-stimulus growth rate.
At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that Trump’s belligerence about foreign trade isn’t a pose; it reflects real conviction. Protectionism seems to be up there with racism as part of the essential Trump. And the realization that he really is a Tariff Man is having a serious dampening effect on business spending, partly because nobody knows just how far he’ll go.
To see how this works, think of the dilemma facing many U.S. manufacturers. Some of them rely heavily on imported parts; they’re not going to invest in the face of actual or threatened tariffs on those imports. Others could potentially compete with imported goods if assured that those imports would face heavy tariffs; but they don’t know whether those tariffs are actually coming, or will endure. So everyone is sitting on piles of cash, waiting to see what an erratic president will do.
Of course, Trump isn’t the only problem here. Other countries have their own troubles — a European recession and a Chinese slowdown look quite likely — and some of these troubles are spilling back to the United States.
But even if Trump and company aren’t the source of all of our economic difficulties, you still want some assurance that they’ll deal effectively with problems as they arise. So what kind of contingency planning is the administration engaged in? What are officials considering doing if the economy does weaken substantially?
The answer, reportedly, is that there is no policy discussion at all, which isn’t surprising when you bear in mind the fact that basically everyone who knows anything about economics left the Trump administration months or years ago. The advisers who remain are busy with high-priority tasks like accusing The Wall Street Journal editorial page of being pro-Chinese.
No, the administration’s only plan if things go wrong seems to be to blame the Fed, whose chairman was selected by … Donald Trump. To be fair, it’s now clear that the Fed was wrong to raise short-term rates last year.
But it’s important to realize that the Fed’s mistake was, essentially, that it placed too much faith in Trumpist economic policies.
- If the tax cut had actually produced the promised boom,
- if the trade war hadn’t put a drag on growth,
we wouldn’t have an inverted yield curve; remember, the Fed didn’t cause the plunge in long-term rates, which is what inverted the curve. And the Trump boom wasn’t supposed to be so fragile that a small rise in rates would ruin it.
I might add that blaming the Fed looks to me like a dubious political strategy. How many voters even know what the Fed is or what it does?
Now, a word of caution: Bond markets are telling us that the smart money is gloomy about economic prospects, but the smart money can be wrong. In fact, it has been wrong in the recent past. Investors were clearly far too optimistic last fall, but they may be too pessimistic now.
But pessimistic they are. The bond market, which is the best indicator we have, is declaring that Trumponomics was a flop.