Will the China Phase One Deal Spell the End of the Trade Wars?

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA, CAIA, MAI

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This entry was posted on Jan 23, 2020 12:47:45 PM

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phase one trade dealWith the recent signing of the phase one trade deal with China, the sense has been that everything is all set, and we can now move on. There is some truth to this belief, as the deal is better than nothing. Still, the agreement leaves many issues unresolved and even creates some new ones.

What’s good?

The deal cancels the consumer import tariffs, scheduled for mid-December. This change will prevent sticker shock for the average consumer. Further, it cuts the tariffs on $120 billion of imports from 15 percent to 7.5 percent, which will also help. This move is a pullback from where we were, but it’s only a partial one. Nonetheless, it’s still a good move.

From the U.S. perspective, another piece of good news is the Chinese agreement to buy an additional $200 billion in goods over two years, with the additional purchases divided among manufactured goods, agriculture, energy, and services. Finally, it puts into place commitments to protect intellectual property, limit forced technology transfer, and open the Chinese market to U.S. service firms, especially in financial services.

Overall, there are some significant wins here, at all levels, for the U.S. economy. If things play out according to the deal, these wins would be worth celebrating. But, of course, it isn’t that simple.

What’s not so good?

The first problem is that U.S. exports have been essentially flat from 2015 through 2019, and the deal would require almost doubling them. Agriculture exports, for example, would have to rise 90 percent from 2017 levels (according to the Wall Street Journal). Whether China needs that many additional imports is an open question.

Another open question is, if those imports are needed, what will the expanded U.S. imports replace? Assuming demand is constant, any additional U.S. orders would replace existing suppliers. Bloomberg, for example, estimates the deal could cost the EU $11 billion in export sales as the U.S. market share increases. Other countries would take the same hit. This shift could well be in conflict with existing trade agreements, especially those of the World Trade Organization (to which the U.S. belongs) and those that require open access—and could result in more trade conflict in those areas.

Finally, the agreement requires China to protect intellectual property. The Chinese have made that promise many times before, to no avail. Maybe this time will be different, but maybe not.

Big picture remains cloudy

If implemented, the phase one trade deal would likely be good for the U.S. Implementation, however, is uncertain, and markets are not reacting as if they expect the agreement to be fully implemented. The prices of soybeans and energy, for example, have ticked down.

Even if it is fully implemented, it will likely lead to other trade conflicts: with the EU, which is currently exploring legal options, and with agricultural exporters like Brazil and Australia, which find their market shares under threat. Also, the deal does not fully eliminate the existing tariffs, meaning that damage will continue.

Given the uncertainty of the benefits, and the very real likely negative reactions, this deal is very much a wait and see. “Show me” seems to be the general attitude that makes the most sense. Although there are some real wins here, the big picture around trade—with China and the rest of the world—remains cloudy with likely storms ahead.

Bottom line? The headlines suggest the phase one deal is worth three cheers. I disagree. It is worth not three cheers but one—and only a small one at that.

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