The “Opportunity Cost” Of Trump’s Underwhelming Trade Deal With China

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Posted: Oct 14, 2019 11:48 AM
The “Opportunity Cost” Of Trump’s Underwhelming Trade Deal With China

Source: AP Photo/Andy Wong

Because of Trump’s poor grasp of trade issues, I warned at the end of July that trade negotiations with China might yield “something gimmicky (like purchasing X tons of soybeans or importing Y number of cars).”

Well, Trump announced an agreement yesterday and I can pat myself of the back for being prescient.

The New York Times reports on the meager features of the purported deal.

President Trump said Friday that the United States had reached an interim deal with China… If completed, …Mr. Trump said the “substantial” agreement would involve China buying $40 billion to $50 billion worth of American agricultural products annually, along with guidelines on how it manages its currency, the renminbi. …The deal is far from the type of comprehensive agreement Mr. Trump has been pushing for, and it leaves some of the administration’s biggest concerns about China’s economic practices unresolved. …Mr. Trump’s defenders say China’s concessions will generate positive momentum for future talks… Mr. Trump and his advisers also did not mention any progress in areas that the American business community has identified as critical to its ability to compete with Chinese companies — including China’s subsidization of industries, the role of the government in the economy.

There are two things worth noting, one of them a minor point and the other a major point.

The minor point is that an agreement to buy $40-$50 billion of agricultural products is managed trade rather than free trade. Consumers in a competitive market should be determining how much is being purchased, not politicians.

The major point is that the Trump Administration has been following the wrong strategy. After nearly three years of bluster against China, we have a deal that is anemic at best. Just imagine, by contrast, where we would be if Trump had joined with our allies and used the World Trade Organization to go after China’s mercantilist policies. We’d be in much better shape today.

And with none of the collateral damage that Trump’s tariffs have caused for American farmers, exporters, consumers, manufacturers, and taxpayers!

To use a bit of economic jargon, failing to utilize the WTO is an “opportunity cost” – an approach that we overlooked and neglected because Trump preferred a trade war.

By the way, I realize that there are some people who viscerally oppose the WTO. I hope they can be persuaded to change their minds. But if that’s impossible, I want to point out that Trump’s approach is wrong even for those who advocate U.S. unilateralism.

There are things that the United States could do that specifically target China’s anti-market policies.

For instance, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, shares an exchange he had with Claude Barfield.

…there’s an alternative to the sweeping protectionism of the populists and progressives. …here is a podcast exchange from last April between AEI trade expert Claude Barfield and myself: Pethokoukis: As far as the enforcement mechanism, should the stick be tariffs? Should we be going after individual Chinese companies that we feel are breaking these rules, that are engaged in tech IP theft? What should be the punitive aspect? Barfield: In terms of intellectual property, if a Chinese company is found having participated in some sort of theft or — and here we have to be more vigilant in following this ourselves — using some technology or system that they’ve stolen, I would ban them from the US market. I would ban them and I would go after them in capital markets around the world. If the Chinese, for instance, continue to refuse to allow real competition and particular sectors are closed off for investment, I would ban the Chinese companies here and again, I would go after them in capital markets. In other words, I think it’s the investment side that is more productive and from the beginning has always been more productive, for me, than the tariffs.

And Derek Scissors, also from AEI, outlines additional options.

…there are many available actions which are more focused and, often, stronger than tariffs. But the Trump administration has neglected them… China’s centrally-controlled state-owned enterprises are very large and never allowed to fail due to commercial competition — the ultimate subsidy. It is thus impossible for the US to achieve balanced market access, much less free trade. …Chinese enterprises are not accidental recipients of protection from competition… These activities are orchestrated by the state. …The last step is what, exactly, to do. There are…many options.

Here’s the table he put together.

The bottom line is that there are plenty of tools available to specifically target anti-market interventionism (subsidies, cronyism, theft, etc) by China. Including options that are too onerous, or perhaps even not compliant with our WTO obligations.

Not that any of that matters. Trump wrongly thinks the bilateral trade deficit (i.e., investment surplus) with China is the problem. So we’ve wasted almost three years with a bad strategyhurt the U.S. economy, and failed to get pro-market reforms in China.

P.S. If successful, the right approach (i.e., using the WTO or unilateralism to go after China’s anti-market policies) would produce benefits for America, and it would produce even greater benefits for China.