President Trump called his new trade deal with China “tremendous” and “phenomenal.” It’s not.
The “phase one” deal—still not finalized—may reduce the threat of new tariffs and other protectionist measures that hurt economic growth. But it leaves in place most of the new tariffs Trump has imposed on Chinese imports. The deal cuts in half the 15% tariff imposed on a basket of consumer imports on Sept. 1, to 7.5%. But 25% tariffs imposed last year on a much larger set of products remains.
Those changes would drop the average U.S. tariff on Chinese imports from 21% to 19.5%, according to Capital Economics. It was 3% before Trump started slinging new tariffs in 2018. So many Chinese imports may remain more expensive, permanently.
Does that matter? It probably depends on how the rest of the economy is doing. So far, the tariffs have contributed to a U.S. manufacturing slowdown and flatlining job growth in the sector. But tariffs haven’t pushed up consumer prices, and the economy is still growing around 2%. If that continues, many voters may conclude Trump’s trade deal did little harm while addressing legitimate trade abuses by China.
Does China want Trump reelected?
It could go worse for Trump, however. China has been cagey about what it actually agreed to, and may never ramp up purchases of U.S. food, energy and other exports to the record levels Trump’s negotiators promised. A key factor here is how much China wants to help Trump get reelected in 2020. If they’d prefer to roll the dice on a Democratic successor, they could string Trump along, do the bare minimum and then do something to embarrass Trump next fall, right before the election. But if China’s comfortable dealing with an unbridled, second-term Trump, they could go along with the deal and give Trump’s claim of victory some credibility.
Markets want the whole thing to simmer down, but there’s also the risk it could heat up again in 2020. Oxford Economics warned clients in mid-December that “trade war re-escalation is a key market threat.” The forecasting firm pointed out there have been several other instances when apparent breakthroughs evaporated, and both sides retaliated with tougher trade impediments. “Equity markets appear particularly vulnerable,” the forecasters wrote, arguing that investors have not priced in the substantial risk of another impasse.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump said he’d go after China in order to bring back jobs that have left the United States. There’s no sign that will ever happen. Some firms with supply chains in China have diversified to other places such as Vietnam, Singapore, India and Mexico, but there’s been no measurable “reshoring” of jobs back to the United States. And while job growth has been solid under Trump, it’s weaker than it was during President Obama’s second term.
Trump will nonetheless declare mission accomplished on China, regardless of the facts, as he does with many other things. Voters, by now, expect hyperbole from Trump. If they feel like they’re better off under Trump and aren’t worried about a recession, they won’t mind his hollow China deal. But if layoffs are picking up and trouble seems imminent, they’ll hammer Trump for tariffs that make the problem worse.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.