With all that’s happening in our trade spat with China, the old saying, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, rings ever louder in my ears with each and every tweet.
To this point, the ongoing US – China trade dispute has not yet escalated to dangerous levels. With only $50 billion of mutual tariffs now in place, just a fraction of our hundreds of billions of dollars of trade with China are affected.
Still, from the standpoint of investors and business leaders, the threat of escalation into a full-blown trade war looms too large. Very few economists – operating outside the White House, that is – are proponents of tariffs. The well-established consensus view on tariffs is they work to raise prices on consumers and ultimately cost us jobs. Using tariffs to resolve disputes is almost indisputably seen as poor economic policy.
That isn’t to say that China is blameless. It’s clear that Chinese authorities do not properly protect the intellectual property of foreign companies. The lure of access to China’s massive market and our addiction to cheap imports literally blinds us to this uncomfortable fact. And, up until now, our response has basically been to turn the other cheek.
I’ve always found it odd that US companies wanting to gain access to China’s market are forced to enter into joint ventures with a domestic Chinese company. Through these mandatory arrangements, foreign companies willfully hand over their trade secrets and industry know-how to China with no legitimate recourse for protection. The short-term profit motive is apparently just too enticing.
In contrast, the US offers nearly unfettered access and full protections to our foreign counterparts. Given the surge in populist politics that propelled Trump into office, it comes as little surprise that his administration is pushing back hard against China. It should also come as little surprise that China will push back equally as hard.
Of course, China has been highly strategic in its responses to Trump’s aggressive statements, threats and trade actions. To begin, China has been extraordinarily careful to never be viewed as the party that initiates or escalates matters. It’s also smartly positioning itself with our major trading partners, such as the European Union, and working to fill the vacuum left behind in Asia by our abrupt withdrawal from negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These are calculated and subtle countermoves by China in their long-term aim to gain greater global economic influence.
Not so subtle retaliations by China are possible if a legitimate trade war heats up. It’s always important to recognize that China, as a direct result of their large trade imbalance with the US, is our biggest lender. Selling their US Treasury holdings with indelicate speed could act as a shot across our bow. In other words, tariffs are not the only arrow in their quiver.
Since nobody wins in a brutal, tit-for-tat trade war, my hope is our leaders in Washington and Beijing are reminded of the wise words of Martin Luther King, “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind!”
Jason P. Tank, CFA is the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a fee-only wealth advisory firm located in Traverse City. He encourages questions and comments about future columns. Contact him at (231) 947-3775, by email at Jason@FrontStreet.com and at www.FrontStreet.com