Trump’s Art of the Spin

NEW HAVEN – Blinded by a surging stock market and a 50-year low in the unemployment rate, few dare to challenge the wisdom of US economic policy. Instant gratification has compromised the rigor of objective and disciplined analysis. Big mistake. The toxic combination of ill-timed fiscal stimulus, aggressive imposition of tariffs, and unprecedented attacks on the Federal Reserve demands a far more critical assessment of Trumponomics.

Politicians and pundits can always be counted on to spin the policy debate. For US President Donald Trump and his supporters, the art of the spin has been taken to a new level. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that federal deficits have been enlarged by an estimated $1.5 trillion over the next decade, or that government debt will reach a post-World War II record of 92% of GDP by 2029. The tax cuts driving these worrying trends are rationalized as what it takes to “Make America Great Again.”

Nor are tariffs viewed as taxes on consumers or impediments to global supply-chain efficiencies; instead, they are portrayed as “weaponized” negotiating levers to force trading partners to change their treatment of the United States. And attacks on the Fed’s independence are seen not as threats to the central bank’s dual mandate to maximize employment and ensure price stability, but rather as the president’s exercise of his prerogative to use the bully pulpit as he – and he alone – sees fit.

There are three basic flaws with Trump’s approach to economic policy.

  1. First, there is the disconnect between intent and impact. The political spin maintains that large corporate tax cuts boost US competitiveness. But that doesn’t mean deficits and debt don’t matter. Notwithstanding the hollow promises of supply-side economics, revenue-neutral fiscal initiatives that shifted the tax burden from one segment of the economy to another would have come much closer to real reform than the reduction of the overall revenue trajectory has. Moreover, the enactment of fiscal stimulus in late 2017, when the unemployment rate was then at a cyclical low of 4.1% (headed toward the current 3.6%), added froth to markets and the economy when it was least needed and foreclosed the option of additional stimulus should growth falter.

Similarly, Trump’s tariffs fly in the face of one of the twentieth century’s greatest policy blunders – the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which sparked a 60% plunge in global trade by 1932. With foreign trade currently accounting for 28% of GDP, versus 11% in 1929, the US, as a debtor country today, is far more vulnerable to trade-related disruptions than it was as a net creditor back then.

Ignoring the cascading stream of direct and retaliatory taxes on consumers and businesses that stem from a tariff war, Trump extols the virtues of tariffs as “a beautiful thing.” That is painfully reminiscent of the 1928 Republican Party platform, which couched tariffs as “a fundamental and essential principle of the economic life of this nation … and essential for the continued prosperity of the country.” Trump ignores the lessons of the 1930s at great peril.

The same can be said of Trump’s recent Fed bashing. The political independence of central banking is widely regarded as the singular breakthrough needed to achieve price stability following the Great Inflation of the 1970s. In the US, passage of the so-called Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978 gave then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker the political cover to squeeze double-digit inflation out of the system through a wrenching monetary tightening. Had Volcker lacked the freedom to act, he would have been constrained by elected leaders’ political calculus – precisely what Trump is doing in trying to dictate policy to current Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

2) The second critical flaw in Trump’s economic-policy package is its failure to appreciate the links between budget deficits, tariffs, and monetary policy. As the late Martin Feldstein , to the extent that budget deficits put downward pressure on already depressed domestic saving, larger trade deficits become the means to fill the void with surplus foreign saving. Denial of these linkages conveniently allows the US to  for self-inflicted trade deficits.

But with tariffs likely to divert trade and supply chains from low-cost Chinese producers to higher-cost alternatives, US consumers will be hit with the functional equivalent of tax hikes, raising the risk of higher inflation. The latter possibility, though seemingly remote today, could have important consequences for US monetary policy – provided, of course, the Fed has the political independence to act.

Finally, there are always the lags to keep in mind in assessing the impact of policy. While low interest rates temper short-term pressures on debt-service costs as budget deficits rise, there is no guarantee that such a trend will persist over the longer term, especially with the already-elevated federal debt overhang projected to increase by about 14 percentage points of GDP over the next ten years. Similarly, the disruptive effects of tariffs and shifts in monetary policy take about 12-18 months to be fully evident. So, rather than bask in today’s financial-market euphoria, politicians and investors should be thinking more about the state of the economy in late 2020 – a timeframe that happens to coincide with the upcoming presidential election cycle – in assessing how current policies are likely to play out.

There is nothing remarkable about a US president’s penchant for political spin. What is glaringly different this time is the lack of any pushback from those who know better. The National Economic Council, established in the early 1990s as an “honest broker” in the executive branch to convene and coordinate debate on key policy issues, is now basically dysfunctional. The NEC’s current head, Larry Kudlow, a long-standing advocate of free trade, is squirming to defend Trump’s tariffs and Fed bashing. The Republican Party, long a champion of trade liberalization, is equally complicit. Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences.

Capitalism in America: Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge in Conversation with Gillian Tett

it’s useful to understand how the system
works and the key turning point is a
very remarkable period it’s William
Jennings Bryan William Jennings Bryan in
1896 was a fairly young 36 year old
Nebraskan who got up in the middle of
that particular I guess you could say
Association of then the Democratic Party
and it was the one of those
extraordinary events which turns
politics around the Democratic Party was
a highly conservative party prior to
them and essentially it’s characterized
by presidents who thought that the least
government the best it was essentially
lazy fair he got up Bryan got up and
made this extraordinary speech which is
now historical and then cross of gold
speech about the American worker and the
American farmer of being crucified on a
cross of gold called being the gold
standard and that propelled him
strangely enough into the head of the
party he got nominated he never became
president because he kept losing
you think he went three times and failed
each time but left a very major
indelible stamp which led to Woodrow
Wilson and all the way through to
Franklin Roosevelt and I you know I
looked at Bryan as the root of Franklin
Roosevelt’s New Deal
that’s fascinating cause I think most
people that part of it’s often being
obscured in history it’s again one of
the reasons why this book is so
interesting is it throws up these
creating the existing tax pattern [M]y
view is that that’s the right thing to
do provided you funded the result of
that is a bit of variance is going to be
a very large federal budget deficit and
federal budget deficits invariably down
the road out qualification in gender
inflation at the moment we have the
tightest labor market I have ever seen
that is the number of job openings is
significantly greater than the number of
people looking for work and that must
inevitably begin to push on wages it
always has and always will but it’s
always delayed
and my told you that is something has
got to give and that’s I don’t know
where it all comes out well your blyat
comes out with inflation well the
problem basically is if we do nothing
we’re going to end up with probably
stagflation which is an inflation rate I
should say it’s partly stagnation which
as mentioned was very significantly
slowed output per our output per hour
now which used to be 3/4 percent per
year
back in the early post-world war ii
period it’s now well under 1% which
brings me very nicely on to the next
question from the audience which is
someone has asked for you to share your
thoughts about president Trump’s recent
criticism of Jay Powell and the Fed I
like him to answer that with all the
answers I think it’s very short-sighted
the issue of the Federal Reserve is
required by the Congress to maintain a
stable currency which means no inflation
no deflation and the policy they’re
embarked upon at the moment seems very
sense it will be caused as I mentioned
before the wage rates are beginning to
show signs of moving and you cannot have
real wages rising without it ultimately
think if they continue on the road would
that we will
going Pretlow I should say that the
president wants to go we’re gonna end up
with a very significant budget deficit
and very significant inflation
ultimately not not in the short term
that it takes a while
political system doesn’t care about
deficits what they do care about is
inflation when the inflation rate was 4%
in the 1970s
President Nixon imposed wage and price
controls were nowhere near there yet but
it’s wrong our way
if we are though heading towards a
potential rise in inflation rise in debt
at a time of growing populism do you
think there’s a chance that the Federal
Reserve will lose independence I’m
trying to follow you which I mean well
cheating is a chance at Congress or the
president will try to control the
Federal Reserve or take away some of its
independence I really don’t know one of
those forecasting aspects which is
difficult another question from the
audience as the Federal Reserve’s reach
grows do you think that leged of
oversight will become necessary again
that’s above my pay grade
or do you think that Congress should
exert more control or oversight of the
Fed I think the Federal Reserve is by
statute
remember the Federal Reserve Act of 1913
which essentially did something very
unusual we had a long period we
discussed this in the book in which
financial crises kept surging up and
then collapsing which is a typical cycle
with
which went on to a decade upon decade
and the populism that evolved as a
consequence of this looked at
ever-increasing lead to find a way to
solve the problem of why the crises
occur and the general solution was if
the economy is accelerating and it’s
running out of gold species and you’re
going to get into a situation in which
they are always going to be crises so
what the Federal Reserve Act actually
did was very very interesting it
substituted the sovereign credit of the
United States for gold and then if no we
stayed on the gold standard technically
that was a major change in American
financial history and debate the basic
consequence of that is that Federal
Reserve determines what in effect is a
sensible level of money supply expansion
and one of the reasons the Federal
Reserve Act was actually passed was to
prevent the political system when
becoming so very dominant in determining
monetary policy which is exactly what
you don’t want to happen and I mean I
was you know eighteen and a half years
as you mentioned getting letters from
everybody who won very little
congressmen or otherwise who wants it’s
a the issue of and don’t worry about the
issue of inflation
and nobody was well when I would be
getting people who say we want lower
interest rates I got tons of that mail I
never got a single letter saying please
raise them and it tells you that there
are some views which go against reality
and reality always wins but if you look
at that the history of populism some of
the worst populism you got was in the
1970s some of the work that the anger
that was generated by inflation in the
nineteen seventies were roiled right the
way through the political system
eventually leads to the rise of of
Ronald Reagan because and who comes in
and then you know crushes crushes
inflation so inflation is is not a
solution to populism it drivers it makes
people very angry do you think the
current populism is going to get worse
chairman Greenspan well let’s remember
where populism comes from it’s I don’t
know whether this is a general
proposition but I find it’s difficult to
get around the answer that when the
inflation rate or that must the
inflation ratings as much as the levels
of income slow down when you get
productivity for example which is that
the major determinant of income and you
get productivity slowing down you get a
much lower increase in JD GDP and gross
domestic income and wages and salaries
alike and there’s a great deal of unease
in the population which is saying things
are not good somebody come help us and
somebody necessarily on the white horse
because comes up and says I’ve got a way
to handle this and if you look at Latin
America the history of
goodly part of Latin America is a
remarkable amount of people like Peron
coming in and all the subsequent post
World War two governments in Latin
America and it’s really quite
unfortunate and surprising it’s not that
they try it and it fails which it does
always it always fails but it doesn’t
eliminate the desire to do it in other
words of Peru Brazil and like they’ve
all undergone very significant periods
of huge inflation and collapsing and
nobody wears a lesson
yeah well we’re almost out of time but
there’s one other question from the
audience which I think cuts to the heart
of a lot of what we’re talking about
right now which is this does the success
of capitalism come at the cost of
enormous wealth disparity is it possible
to have this vision of creative
destruction of capitalism of dynamism
without having massive income inequality
I doubt it and I doubt it for the reason
I said earlier namely that we’ve got the
problem that human beings don’t change
but technology as it advances and it’s
embodied in the growth of an economy is
always growing and when you have
something that’s growing and the other
thing that’s flat you get obviously
inequality and the political
consequences of that can I qualify that
just a little bit I mean there – there
are different sorts of inequality
there’s a there’s the inequality that
you get from suddenly like Bill Gates or
Steve Jobs producing a fantastic new
innovation and idea which means that
they reap a lot of reward
for that but which means that society as
a whole gets richer and better off and
there’s the inequality that comes from
crony capitalism from people using
political influence blocking innovation
and and sucking out and do rewards for
themselves so I think we need to be
absolutely very very sensitive to the
wrong source of inequality while

celebrating the right sort of inequality
and also had that Joseph Schumpeter that

great man once said that the the nature
of capitalist progress doesn’t consist
of Queens having a million or two
million pairs of silk stockings it
consists of what used to be the
prerogative of a queen being spread
throughout the whole of society silk
stockings you know that become something
that go from being very rare and only
worn by Queens to being worn by all
sorts of people all over the place so
it’s the nature of capitalism is to
create new innovations which are at

first rare but spread throughout the
whole of society and everybody uses so
if you think think of the the iPhone or
something like that some that was
something that was incredibly rare and a
few people had those sort of
communications vais now everybody
carries them around all the time and the
great capitalists the Bill Gates the

Steve Jobs don’t get rich by selling one
really really good iPhone to one purpose
and they get into selling their products
to all sorts of people so there’s a
sense in which there is no real
trade-off between very rich people
getting very rich and the rest of
society getting getting better off you
know they only get rich because they
create things which everybody most
people want to have and buy you know
it’s it’s it’s it’s the Silk Stocking
question really I you know I accept that
qualifications let me just say one thing

you going back to his mentioning here
Walter Isaacson’s book on innovation he
wrote that book and I remember reading
it and my final conclusion was and I
asked him why is it that most innovation
is in the United States
it’s American and he said you know I’ve
never thought of that I don’t think he
was aware of the fact that he here and
all these innovation
to developers and they all turned out to
be American which leads me to conclude
that there’s something fundamental in
the psyche of American history in the
American public which creates it it’s
not an accident which is why I won in it
who too often so which is what you of
course you sought to explain the book so
if you had a chance to take this book
into the Oval Office today or into the

Treasury and give it to the President
and say this is a history of America
here are the key lessons what is a top
bit of advice that you would give to the
administration today to keep capitalism

growing in America well you know we do
have we haven’t mentioned that there’s
an underlying financial problem which we
haven’t addressed in the best way to
discuss it as when I first became aware
of it
I would haven’t been looking at data and
accidentally created a chart which
showed the relationship between
entitlements spending which is social
benefits in the rest of the world and
gross domestic savings and I’m from 1965

to the current period the ratio of
entitlements to the sum of those two is
flat as a percent of gross domestic
product which means or at least implies
that one is crowding out the other and
when you look at the individuals they
are actually looking different and
enable one goes up the other goes down
and so forth and I think that’s
suggestively the fact that there is
something in the sense of when we say
that entitlements by which a rising and
the baby boom generation is essentially
crowding out gross domestic savings
which in turn coupled with
the borrowing from abroad is how we
finance our gross domestic investment
which is the key factor in productivity
right so entitlement reform well I look
forward to a tweet about entitlement
reform I look forward to this very
important book being part of the
discussion about how to keep America
America’s economy great and growing but
in the meantime thank you both very much
indeed for sharing your thoughts it is
indeed a fascinating book and quite an

achievement and best of luck in getting
this very important message out so thank
you both very much indeed
[Applause]

Frustration, Miscalculation: Inside the U.S.-China Trade Impasse

The latest breakdown shows the two countries still haven’t found a way to negotiate effectively. ‘Sometimes you need to say “stop screwing me.”’

The U.S. and Chinese governments both sent signals ahead of their trade talks in Washington last week that a pact was so near they would discuss the logistics of a signing ceremony.

In a matter of days, the dynamic shifted so markedly that the Chinese deliberated whether to even show up after President Trump ordered a last-minute increase in tariffs on Chinese imports because the U.S. viewed China as reneging on previous commitments.

Inside the cloistered Zhongnanhai government compound in Beijing, President Xi Jinping and his close advisers discussed how to respond to the tariff increase, given the talks were just days away, according to Chinese officials with knowledge of the decision-making process.

After huddling Tuesday to analyze a press conference given by the U.S.’s two top negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Chinese officials concluded that they should travel to at least avoid a rift that could be difficult to repair.

The recommendation went to China’s chief negotiator, Liu He, and ultimately to Mr. Xi. He decided to send the team even though Beijing was fully aware that the trip held little prospect of progress, given how quickly problems had arisen. “The goal was simply to keep the talks going,” said one of the Chinese officials with knowledge of the matter.

By the end of the week, that was as much as both sides could cite for their efforts: the avoidance of a serious rupture that would doom any prospect of a future deal and a commitment to stay near the negotiating table.

So far, the trade talks have provided little evidence that the two nations have found a formula for how to negotiate successfully since Messrs. Trump and Xi met in Buenos Aires Dec. 1, which paved the way to Washington last week.

China didn’t immediately impose new strictures on U.S. businesses, as it has done when things weren’t going well in the past. Mr. Liu is expected to brief Mr. Xi on the discussions he had in Washington before Beijing decides on the next course of action, according to the officials familiar with the process.

.. Bridging the trade rift may ultimately depend on the personal chemistry between President Trump and President Xi and their willingness to push matters forward after months of negotiations that have been full of positive intentions but thwarted by miscalculations, accusations of backtracking and unfulfilled expectations.

.. “They were playing games with us,” said one senior U.S. trade official of the talks in Washington three months ago. Mr. Kudlow told reporters at the time that Mr. Lighthizer “read them the riot act.

“The more heated moments have been in situations where we thought we had something and suddenly there was some backsliding,” said one person involved in the discussions on the U.S. side.

“We’ve expressed some pretty serious frustration at times,” this person said. “It’s been a necessary ingredient to success. You can be nice to someone, but sometimes you need to say ‘stop screwing me.’ ”

.. “We were in the process of planning for a signing summit with President Trump and President Xi upon the completion of this agreement,” Mr. Mnuchin later told reporters. One of the issues was where to hold the celebratory moment: Washington or Mr. Trump’s golf estates in Mar-a-Lago, in Florida, or Bedminster, N.J., say Trump aides.

 .. Chinese negotiators let their U.S. counterparts know that they had serious reservations with the text. The Chinese were no longer willing to commit to changing laws covering intellectual property, forced technology transfer, subsidies and other issues at the heart of the dispute. They also objected to publication of all the details of the text, preferring a summary.

To the Chinese, this was a matter of honor: The U.S. should trust Beijing to make the changes they said they would make, even if that meant changing regulations rather than laws. Besides, the U.S. was being unfair in refusing, upon the signing of a deal, to remove tariffs that had been assessed in the yearlong fight, the Chinese believed.

“There is a real desire on our end to keep the tariffs on,” one White House official said. “That is a sticking point.”

Another major area of conflict has been how to deal with what the U.S. sees as Chinese recalcitrance on clamping down on the theft of U.S. intellectual property, said people briefed on the talks. The U.S. initially had sought to appeal to Mr. Xi’s nationalistic tendencies, arguing that if China was as great as Mr. Xi portrayed it, why would it need to steal U.S. technology?

The Trump administration believed it had an agreement that included a satisfactory level of enforcement should the Chinese record not improve. “Not tiger teeth, but real enough to make a deal,” one of the people tracking the talks said.

Then Chinese officials said enforcement procedures would need to go through Chinese law-enforcement channels and couldn’t be guaranteed at the negotiating table, this person said, which U.S. officials didn’t view as a credible option.

In Beijing, as the talks approached, Chinese officials believed they had some leverage, The Wall Street Journal has previously reported, because they saw Mr. Trump’s public criticism of the Federal Reserve and his desire for lower interest rates as a sign that he was worried about the future course of the U.S. economy and therefore may be more eager to do a deal. It was a miscalculation on their part; Mr. Trump has long called for low borrowing costs and also has repeatedly cited the enduring strength of the U.S. economy.

President Xi also was encouraged by a pickup in Chinese growth—the result of Beijing’s aggressive stimulus policies—and by a perception that the American economy is about to enter a down cycle.Time is on our side,” said a senior official in Beijing. On the home front, Mr. Xi is wary of a potential political backlash as a result of any perception that he is conceding too much to Washington.

Chinese officials were therefore caught off guard, three days before the Washington talks were scheduled, when Mr. Trump said on Twitter he would increase tariffs, to 25% from 10%, on the $200 billion in Chinese goods because he saw the Chinese backtracking—the original threat he had set for a March 1 deadline.

Shortly after Mr. Trump’s announcement of the tariff increase, Beijing’s trade negotiators, who had booked Air China tickets to Washington, received an urgent order: Stay put until further notice. “Looks like we’re not going,” one of them said early Monday morning.

Up until that moment, China’s leadership had expected the trip to bring months of negotiations to a close, according to Chinese officials close to the negotiation process, given that Chinese diplomats were already in discussion with their American counterparts about a possible summit between Messrs. Xi and Trump to finalize a trade agreement.

Now, the pressing question for Beijing became: Should it pull out of the planned talks to adhere to its longstanding public position that China doesn’t negotiate under threat? Or should China bite the bullet and still send the delegation to avoid a complete collapse of negotiations?

The Chinese side wanted more information from Washington before making the decision. But senior officials knew news of Mr. Trump’s tweets would inevitably cause market anxiety. The first order of business Monday morning: China’s central bank sped up a plan to release more funds for banks, a stimulus measure aimed at calming jittery investors and businesses.

State-backed funds were also instructed to buy what was necessary to prevent a free fall of shares. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman released a statement at Monday’s regular press briefing that said only that the Chinese delegation was “preparing to travel to the U.S.” The spokesman didn’t say when the team would depart or give additional details.

On Tuesday morning, a group of officials at the vice minister level, including Liao Min, a trusted aide to Mr. Liu and a vice Finance Minister, and Wang Shouwen, a vice Commerce Minister, reached the conclusion the talks should proceed, a position endorsed by Mr. Xi though expectations of a positive result had fallen sharply.

The U.S. side made some calls that turned off the Chinese, too. By insisting that it wouldn’t remove any tariffs upon closing a deal, the U.S. gave Beijing little incentive to accept tough conditions. The U.S. position remained firm: no tariff removal until Beijing showed it would carry through on the commitments it made under the deal. On top of that, the U.S. wanted China to pledge not to retaliate if the U.S. were to reimpose tariffs if it found China in violation of some provisions.

Mr. Trump on Thursday let it be known he didn’t want the U.S. to appear soft on China, according to one person briefed on the matter.

The two days of negotiations went amicably nonetheless, according to people tracking the talks. Messrs Lighthizer and Mnuchin, who both were in the discussions, took Mr. Liu to a working dinner at the Metropolitan Club, a ritzy private club near the U.S. Trade Representative’s headquarters that is a Lighthizer favorite. Mr. Liu continued the talks on Friday despite the U.S. implementing the higher tariffs very early Friday morning.

Later that morning, Mr. Lighthizer greeted the Chinese envoy at the door of the USTR office—a gesture he rarely makes, but one which he could be sure would be captured by photographers and camera crews waiting outside.

By then, though, the U.S. team went into the talks not expecting to do a deal, figuring they would have a “non-meeting,” according to one person briefed on the discussions. U.S. officials at least wanted to make sure they didn’t leave with a complete break. The goal of the meeting was to be able to say the U.S. negotiators were still trying, this person said.

In an interview with Chinese media Friday, Mr. Liu disputed U.S. accounts that China reneged on commitments it had already made as part of the trade talks. “We are very clear that we cannot make concessions on matters of principle,” Mr. Liu said. “We hope our U.S. colleagues understand this.”

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.