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Trump’s early trade-war advantage may be slipping by the day

Updated September 21, 2018

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The Soro Enshi container ship at the Yangshan Deep Water Port in Shanghai on July 10, 2018.—Bloomberg
The Soro Enshi container ship at the Yangshan Deep Water Port in Shanghai on July 10, 2018.—Bloomberg

President Donald Trump may find it harder to claim victory over China the longer his trade war runs, even as he points to America’s ebullient economy and stock market as evidence he’s winning for now.

The president this week ordered his officials to slap tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods on Sept 24. In retaliation, Beijing said it would hit $60bn in US products with duties. Yet even as the conflict escalates, the Trump administration signaled it would still be open to talks as soon as next week.

In confronting China, Trump is using the same strong-arm tactics he employed as a real-estate mogul, taking care to snuff out any suggestion he’s under pressure to strike a deal.

But Trump’s leverage may be short-lived. The president’s political power will be curtailed if the Democrats win the House in congressional elections in November, as they are favored to do. While the US economy has so far appeared resilient to the trade war, the boost from this year’s tax cuts is expected to fade.

Meanwhile, China’s economy is showing some signs of cooling, but it’s still growing at a brisk pace, giving Beijing room to cushion the blow. President Xi Jinping, who cemented his hold on power in March with the repeal of term limits, has reason to be patient.

“The issue of leverage varies with time. If you ask the same question tomorrow, the calculus will have shifted ever so slightly in favor of China,” said Stephen Jen, CEO of Eurizon Slj Capital Ltd., an asset-management firm based in London. “If you ask the question a week from now, things will be even more in favor of China.”

Trump does have a point about how markets have reacted to the conflict. Since the president ordered his officials to ready tariffs on a first round of $50bn of Chinese goods in March, US stocks have risen about 10 per cent, while Chinese equities have dropped more than 16pc.

There’s a lot to like about the US economy, which is enjoying its second longest expansion on record. Growth in the second quarter was the fastest in four years, while the unemployment rate of 3.9pc is near its lowest since the 1960s.

China, by contrast, is showing signs of softness. Fixed-asset investment growth in the first eight months fell to the slowest pace since at least 1999. The yuan is down about 8pc since Trump ordered tariffs.

“China should really wait another five years to stand up to the US,” said Jen.

China’s economy was expected to slow as it relies less on debt and shifts to a growth model driven more by consumption, a shift touted Wednesday in a speech by Premier Li Keqiang. Beijing has already unveiled measures to shield itself against the trade war, including infrastructure spending and looser bank capital requirements. While high debt levels may constrain the ability to respond, Xi still has plenty of ways to ease the pain.

The US has already used a lot of fiscal ammunition. The $1.5 trillion in tax cuts that took effect in February gave the economy a boost, but the IMF expects the stimulus to wear off by 2020, when growth will slow. It still sees China becoming the world’s biggest economy by 2030.

Xi has sweeping authority to conduct the trade war.

Meanwhile, Trump’s latest weekly approval rating is 38pc, according to polling firm Gallup. His Republican party could lose control of the House in Nov 6 congressional elections. Senior Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have urged Trump to keep up pressure on China, but Democrats are not guaranteed to back his tariffs.

“We actually have to deal with something called elections,” said Stefan Selig, managing partner at BridgePark Advisors and a former senior trade official in the Obama administration. “Culturally, they are just going to be able to withstand more pain for a longer period of time.”

US business opposition to the tariffs is growing. The administration says it’s trying to minimise the direct cost to consumers. Still, Trump has said he’s willing to slap duties on effectively all Chinese imports, suggesting it’s only a matter of time before mobile phones and other popular items get hit.

“The idea that you’re going to punch China in the face or otherwise make China look weak is not a recipe for resolving our differences,” said Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade at the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington. “The quicker both sides realise that the current situation is untenable, and that they need to come to an agreement that allows each side to see the value, the better off we’ll all be.”

—Bloomberg/The Washington Post Services

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2018