Trade wars step up, more to come

Quickview: As the trade wars escalate we see no sign of agreement between the US and China. We assess the macro impact.

18 September 2018

Keith Wade

Keith Wade

Chief Economist & Strategist

The US has announced tariffs on another $200 billion of imports from China, citing ongoing concerns over the theft of technology and forced transfer of intellectual property. The tariffs take effect next week and are initially set at 10% rising to 25% from 1 January next year. China has yet to respond, but the White House has warned that any retaliation will lead to tariffs on a further $267 billion of additional imports. China may bide its time, but we expect they will follow with tariffs on a further $60 billion of imports from the US.

For some time our assumption has been that we will eventually see tariffs on all the goods traded between China and the US. The red lines on each side are too ideological and entrenched to allow much room for manoeuvre. China sees its trade policies as an essential part of the growth strategy that will allow the economy to hurdle the middle-income trap, in line with its “Made in China 2025” policy. Meanwhile, President Trump came to power promising to put “America first” and he has assembled a team that believes China is a root cause of the decline in parts of the US economy.

Against such a backdrop, we have the makings of a chronic dispute that will go well beyond the mid-term elections in November. Whilst China has less scope to match the scale of goods covered by US tariffs it has plenty of opportunity to apply non-tariff barriers, apply restrictions and make life difficult for US companies operating in China. Those interested need only look at the experience of South Korean companies in the wake of the anti-missile system dispute.

In terms of macro impact, the latest tariffs will slow Chinese export growth to the US. The extent of the impact will depend on the price sensitivity of the goods involved and whether alternative sources of supply can be found. Movements in the exchange rate can also offset tariffs, although we do not expect China to devalue the renminbi in response. Model simulations suggest China’s export growth will be 2-5% weaker. Global growth would also be weaker as international trade slows. However, these effects will take time to come through and in the near term we may actually see a boost to China’s exports as US companies accelerate imports ahead of further tariffs. This will complicate interpretation of the impact and no doubt frustrate the Trump administration’s desire for a smaller bi-lateral deficit. Ultimately though, the effect will be stagflationary, as tariffs slow trade and uncertainty drags on capital investment, whilst the extra cost of imports adds to inflation.

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