How Goes the Trade War?

Consumers, not foreigners, are paying the Trump tariffs.

Say this for Donald Trump: He’s provided us with many iconic quotations, which will surely be repeated in histories and textbooks for decades if not generations to come. Unfortunately, they’ll be repeated because they are extremely clear examples of bad ideas.

In economics, the line you hear most is Trump’s declaration that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” Coming in second is his assertion that “I am a Tariff Man,” coupled with the claim that foreigners pay the tariffs he has been imposing.

Now, that last claim is something you can test. Over the course of 2018 Trump imposed tariffs on about 12 percent of total U.S. imports, and many of those tariffs have been in effect long enough that we can get a first read on their consequences.

On Saturday economists from Columbia, Princeton, and the New York Federal Reserve released a paper, “The impact of the 2018 trade war on U.S. prices and welfare,” that used detailed import data to assess the tariffs’ impact. (The paper, by the way, is a beautiful piece of work.) The conclusion: to a first approximation, foreigners paid none of the bill, U.S. companies and consumers paid all of it. And the losses to U.S. consumers exceeded the revenue from the new tariffs, so the tariffs made America poorer overall.

How did they get this result? The U.S. government collects data on the prices and quantities of many categories of imports. Many of these categories faced new tariffs, but many others didn’t. So you can compare what happened to the tariffed imports to the de facto control group of untouched imports; this tells you the impact of the tariffs.

Under Trump’s vision, in which foreigners would have paid the tariffs, what you would have expected to see is falling prices for tariffed goods, offsetting the tariff, so that consumer prices didn’t change. What you actually see, however, is no visible effect of the tariffs on import prices. So foreign suppliers don’t seem to have absorbed any of the tariffs, which were fully passed on to consumers; tariff-inclusive prices (Figure 1) have risen by the full amounts of the tariffs.

The trade war is already over

The Chinese and U.S. economies are likely to slow in 2019, giving President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping no choice but to declare a truce in their ferocious trade battle, according to a top Wall Street strategist.

“I think personally that the trade war is coming to an end and there is really nothing Trump can do about it,” Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at The Leuthold Group, said in the latest edition of the POLITICO Money podcast. “If you have the United States and China both with very weak economies, the negotiation around trade just evaporates. Neither party has any negotiating power left. They both have to stop what they are doing.”

.. Paulsen said he doesn’t believe that Trump, who loves to extol a rising market, will want to risk the kind of crash that could occur if talks fall apart. “I think fairly soon we are going to see an announcement between China and Trump,” he said. “I think it will amount, basically, to a hill of beans. But it will be a face-saving announcement of something being done.”

More broadly, Paulsen said he thought recent market volatility and sharp declines were actually a good thing. He said he believes investors are panicking about a global recession that isn’t actually coming: “One of the good things we’ve got going on, I would say, as an investor, is we’ve got people freaking out. I think that’s a good thing.”

China is Losing the New Cold War

At first glance, it may not seem that China is really engaged in an arms race with the US. After all, China’s official defense budget for this year – at roughly $175 billion – amounts to just one-quarter of the $700 billion budget approved by the US Congress. But China’s actual military spending is estimated to be much higher than the official budget: according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion.

In any case, the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.

If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither.

On the macro level, China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to

  • rapid population aging,
  • high debt levels,
  • maturity mismatches, and the
  • escalating trade war

that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs.

Moreover, while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment.

.. The problem for the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets.

Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become.

The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”

Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries. Despite early signs of trouble – which, together with the Soviet Union’s experience, should give the CPC pause – China seems to be determined to push ahead with the BRI, which the country’s leaders have established as a pillar of their new “grand strategy.”

An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return. According to AidData at the College of William and Mary, from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion.

Now, China has pledged to provide $62 billion in loans for the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” That program will help Pakistan confront its looming balance-of-payments crisis; but it will also drain the Chinese government’s coffers at a time when trade protectionism threatens their replenishment.

Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.

Trump Hasn’t Killed the Global Trade System. Instead, He Split it in Two.

Allies find relations modestly tweaked, despite the president’s rhetoric, while relations with China are entering a deep freeze

When Donald Trump entered the White House on a platform of defiant nationalism nearly two years ago, many feared he would dismantle the global trading system the U.S. and its allies had built over the past 70 years.

He hasn’t. Instead, he is presiding over its realignment into two distinct systems.

  1. One, between the U.S. and its traditional, democratic trading partners, looks a lot like the system that has prevailed since the 1980s: free trade with a smattering of quotas and tariffs like those Ronald Reagan once deployed.
  2. The second reflects an emerging rivalry between the U.S. and China carrying echoes of the Cold War. On trade, investment and technology, the U.S. is moving to undo some of the integration that followed China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

There are two big questions hanging over this realignment. The first is deciding how far the U.S. is prepared to decouple from China. The U.S. has given China until March 1 to avoid higher tariffs by addressing complaints it discriminates against foreign companies and steals their technology. Mr. Trump is counting on a deal that avoids a trade war. But many in his administration and Congress don’t trust China to make the necessary concessions and would likely advocate a sharper break.

The second question is whether the U.S. can persuade allies to join a united front to contain China. Other countries don’t relish the choice. Their economic ties to China are far greater than they ever were to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Two years ago, it was easy to predict a grimmer fate for the global trading system. Mr. Trump campaigned as a protectionist willing to tear up trade agreements and raise tariffs to shrink the trade deficit and bring back factory jobs.

In his first week he withdrew from the unratified 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. He prepared to pull out of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (Korus) and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Earlier this year he imposed steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, using a little-used national security law, and threatened the same for autos.

Today, Korus and Nafta have been replaced by updated agreements(one not yet ratified) that look much like the originals. South Korea accepted quotas on steel. Mexico and Canada agreed to higher wages, North American content requirements and quotas for autos.

These represent a step back from free trade toward managed trade, but they will have little practical effect: The limits on how many cars Mexico and Canada can ship duty-free to the U.S., for example, exceed current shipments. Mr. Trump hasn’t stopped threatening auto tariffs, but for now his officials have elected instead to seek broader tariff reductions with Japan and the European Union.

.. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit that incenses Mr. Trump has grown during his presidency, especially with China and Mexico, as a strong American economy sucks in imports. His exhortations to manufacturers to bring jobs back to the U.S. have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Douglas Irwin, an economist and trade historian at Dartmouth College, calls these results the “status quo with Trumpian tweaks: a little more managed trade sprinkled about for favored industries. It’s not good, but it’s not the destruction of the system.”

.. Yet the status quo with China is crumbling. Businesses have grown disillusioned with China’s restrictions on their activities, forced technology transfer and intellectual-property theft, all aimed at building up domestic competitors at foreign expense. Meanwhile, legislators in both parties are alarmed at increased military assertiveness and domestic repression under President Xi Jinping.

.. When Mr. Xi visited the U.S. in 2015, Mr. Sullivan urged his colleagues to pay more attention to China’s rise. On the senate floor, he quoted the political scientist Graham Allison: “War between the U.S. and China is more likely than recognized at the moment.”

Last spring, Mr. Sullivan went to China and met officials including Vice President Wang Qishan. They seemed to think tensions with the U.S. will fade after Mr. Trump leaves the scene, Mr. Sullivan recalled.

“I just said, ‘You are completely misreading this.’” The mistrust, he told them, is bipartisan, and will outlast Mr. Trump.

While delivering one message to China, Mr. Sullivan gave a different one to the administration and its trade negotiators: Don’t alienate allies needed to take on China.

“Modernize the agreements but stay within the agreements,” he says he counseled them. “Then we have to turn to the really big geostrategic challenge facing our country and that’s China.”

His was one voice among many urging Mr. Trump to single out China for pressure. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush sought to change China’s behavior through dialogue and engagement. Obama officials had begun to question engagement by the end of the administration. Last year, in its National Security Strategy, the Trump administration declared engagement a failure.

The Trump administration regards economic policy and national security as inseparable when it comes to Beijing, because China’s acquisition of Western technology both strengthens China militarily and weakens the U.S. economically.

The administration has yet to publicly explain its goals. In 1946, at the start of the Cold War, diplomat George Kennan made the case for containing the Soviet Union in his famous “long telegram.” The Trump administration hasn’t done anything comparable for China. One reason might be that administration officials are divided. Mr. Trump appears torn between wanting to halt China’s rise at any cost and hoping for “a big and very comprehensive deal” that lifts the cloud of a trade war.

.. U.S. and domestic concerns have prompted Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain and Canada to restrict or consider restricting Huawei equipment in their telecom infrastructure, in particular for the next 5G mobile phone standard.

The U.S. is also seeking to wall China off from future trade deals. It insisted the pact replacing Nafta include a clause letting the U.S. quit if either Canada or Mexico signs a free-trade agreement with a “non-market economy,” i.e., China.

.. The first goes to the heart of Mr. Trump’s goal. If his aim is to hold back China’s advance, economists predict he will fail. China’s innovative capacity has expanded dramatically. China now accounts for 18.6% of articles in international scientific journals, according to one study, and nearly a quarter of global venture-capital investment, according to another.

Indeed, some China experts fear that the U.S., by adopting a more adversarial approach, weakens China’s reformers and strengthens its nationalist factions, making conflict more likely. They predict China will intensify its pursuit of technological self-sufficiency.

.. Persuading other countries to hold China at arm’s length will be harder than containing the Soviet Union. China accounts for 11% of world exports, whereas the Soviet Union in the 1980s accounted for less than 3%,

.. China is 22% of Japanese imports and exports; the Soviet Union was less than 1%.

.. Many of China’s close neighbors depend far more, economically, on China than on the U.S.

.. U.S. officials note that China’s aid, such its Belt and Road infrastructure program, often saddles recipients with debt. Yet the U.S. offers no alternative, said Mr. Rudd.
.. Some of Mr. Trump’s trade policies undermine the united front he wants against China. He hasn’t sworn off protectionism against U.S. allies, promising to withdraw from Nafta even if its replacement isn’t ratified by Congress. His steel and aluminum tariffs, most of which remain in place, outraged such allies as Canada.

U.S. officials play down such frictions as easily worked out. Abroad, they are seen as more serious. Canadian ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaugton said he told U.S. trade negotiators that if Mr. Trump carried through on his threatened 25% tariff on Canadian autos, it would fundamentally change bilateral relations for the worse for years to come. In a letter accompanying Nafta’s replacement, the U.S. agreed not to levy the tariffs.