Trade Wars: Playing hardball with China

Remember North Korea and the imminent nuclear war? With leaders trading insults on Twitter and bragging: “My nuclear button is bigger than yours.” It may resemble a WWF arena more than international diplomacy but that is how Donald Trump conducts foreign affairs.

The current Twitter war over trade tarrifs is no different. Threat and counter-threat of wider and deeper trade tariffs are likely to bounce back-and-forth over the next few weeks. Xi Jinping thinks he has the upper hand because he doesn’t face criticism from a hostile media at home. Nor does he need to front up to a hostile domestic opposition. They’re all safely tucked away in jail. His stock market has already crashed, so there is not too much to worry about on that front either.

Shanghai Composite Index

Xi will do his best to undermine Trump’s shaky support. Targeting Trump’s electoral base with tariffs on soy bean imports (farming states) and steel tubing (Texas) in order to undermine his support. Targeting technology companies like Boeing and Apple, where China is a large slice of their global market, is also likely to elicit strenuous lobbying in Washington. As are well-timed tweets aimed at undermining stock support levels, threatening a major stock market rout.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

Trump probably recognizes that China can withstand more pain, but figures that he has the capacity to inflict more pain. The US has a large trade deficit with China.

Twitter: US-China trade deficit

And exports comprise a larger percentage of China’s GDP.

In 2010, Paul Krugman wrote:

Some still argue that we must reason gently with China, not confront it. But we’ve been reasoning with China for years, as its surplus ballooned, and gotten nowhere: on Sunday Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, declared — absurdly — that his nation’s currency is not undervalued. (The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that the renminbi is undervalued by between 20 and 40 percent.) And Mr. Wen accused other nations of doing what China actually does, seeking to weaken their currencies “just for the purposes of increasing their own exports.”

But if sweet reason won’t work, what’s the alternative? In 1971 the United States dealt with a similar but much less severe problem of foreign undervaluation by imposing a temporary 10 percent surcharge on imports, which was removed a few months later after Germany, Japan and other nations raised the dollar value of their currencies. At this point, it’s hard to see China changing its policies unless faced with the threat of similar action — except that this time the surcharge would have to be much larger, say 25 percent.

I don’t propose this turn to policy hardball lightly. But Chinese currency policy is adding materially to the world’s economic problems at a time when those problems are already very severe. It’s time to take a stand.

Krugman (no surprise) now seems more opposed to trade tariffs but observes:

….I think it’s worth noting that even if we are headed for a full-scale trade war, conventional estimates of the costs of such a war don’t come anywhere near to 10 percent of GDP, or even 6 percent. In fact, it’s one of the dirty little secrets of international economics that standard estimates of the cost of protectionism, while not trivial, aren’t usually earthshaking either.

I believe that Krugman’s original 2010 argument is still valid and that Trump is right in confronting China. The gap between imports and exports of goods is widening, especially since 2014, not shrinking.

Exports and Imports: Value of Goods for China

But let’s hope that Trump has done his homework. At this stage this is just a Twitter war rather than a trade war, intended to soften up your opponent rather than inflict real damage. But for Trump to succeed he must demonstrate that the US is prepared to endure the pain of a lengthy trade war if needed.

Men naturally despise those who court them, but respect those who do not give way to them.

~ Thucydides (circa 400 BC)

Five Challenges facing President Obama

On his inauguration in 2009, Barack Obama inherited a massive headache from the GFC. With unemployment stubbornly above 9 percent, efforts to create new jobs have so far proved futile.

  • Low interest rates from the Fed failed to stimulate new investment. Richard Koo coined the phrase balance-sheet recession to describe private sector reaction to a financial crisis. Low interest rates have as much effect as pushing on a string. Corporations and households alike have no wish to borrow in the face of falling asset prices and erosion of their own balance sheets — and banks have little desire to lend.
  • Quantitative easing failed to lower long-term interest rates and stimulate employment. Instead it revived inflation expectations, creating a surge in commodity prices.
  • The trade deficit widened despite the falling dollar, reflecting an inability of US exports to compete in offshore markets — and a loss of manufacturing jobs as foreign exporters made inroads into US domestic markets.
  • Fiscal stimulus, whether through tax cuts or spending on education or infrastructure not only failed to create sustainable jobs but has left the taxpayer with a mountain of public debt.
  • The home construction industry, a major employer, remains stagnant. Inventories of new and existing homes amount to more than 12 months sales at current rates — when one includes “shadow inventory” of homes repossessed, in foreclosure, or with mortgages delinquent for 90 days or more.

Deflation threat
When the housing bubble collapsed, households and corporates were threatened by falling values and shrinking credit. Savings increased and were used to repay debt rather than channeled through the financial system into new capital investment. A deflationary gap opened up between income and spending: repaying debt does not generate income as new capital investment does. The gap may appear small but, like air escaping from a punctured tire, can cause significant damage to overall income levels as it replays over and over through the economy. The only way to plug the gap is for government to spend more than it collects by way of taxes, but the result is a sharp increase in public debt.

Five point plan
Companies are unwilling to commence hiring until consumption increases — and consumption is unlikely to increase until employment levels rise. The only solution is to create sustainable jobs while minimizing borrowing against future tax revenues.

  1. Stop importing capital and exporting jobs.
    Japan and China have effectively maintained a trade advantage against the US by investing more than $2.3 trillion in US Treasuries. The inflow of funds on capital account acts to suppress their exchange rate, effectively pegging it against the greenback. Imposition of trade penalties would result in tit-for-tat retaliation that could easily escalate into a trade war. Capital flows, however, are already tightly controlled by China and others, so retaliation to capital account controls would be meaningless. Phased introduction of a withholding tax on foreign investments would discourage further capital inflows and encourage gradual repatriation of existing balances over time. Reciprocal access to capital markets could then be negotiated through individual tax treaties.
  2. Clear excess housing inventories.
    Supporting prices at current levels through low interest rates will prevent the market from clearing excess inventory. Stimulating demand through home-buyer subsidies would achieve this but increases public debt and, as Australia discovered, leaves a “shadow” of weak demand if the subsidy is later phased out. Allowing home prices to fall, on the other hand, would clear excess inventory but threaten the banking sector. Shoring up failing banks also requires funding, although this could be recovered over time through increased deposit insurance.
  3. Increase infrastructure spending.
    Infrastructure projects should not be evaluated on the number of jobs created but on their potential to generate future revenue streams. Whether toll roads or national broadband networks, revenue streams can be used to repay public debt. Projects that generate market-related returns on investment also open up opportunities for private sector funding. Spending on education and community assets should not be funded with debt as they provide no viable revenue streams for repayment. The same goes for repairs and maintenance to existing infrastructure — they should be funded out of current tax revenues. Similarly, research and development of unproven technologies with open-ended budgets and uncertain future revenues.
  4. Raise taxes to fund infrastructure investment.
    Raising taxes to repay debt, as FDR discovered in 1937, has the same effect as a deflationary gap in the private sector and shrinks national output. But raising taxes to fund infrastructure investment leaves no deflationary gap and increases the overall level of capital investment — and job creation — within the economy.
  5. Increase austerity.
    Cutting back on government spending merely re-opens the deflationary gap between income and spending. Reducing regular spending in order to free up funds for infrastructure projects, however, would leave no deflationary gap while accelerating job creation within the economy.

Bi-partisan approach
The magnitude and extent of the problems facing the US require a truly bi-partisan approach, unsuited to the rough-and-tumble of a vibrant democracy. Generational changes are required whose impact will be felt long after the next election term. It will take true leadership to forge a broad consensus and set the US on a sound path for the future.

Published in the November issue of Charter magazine.