A Grim New U.S-China Tariff War Milestone

Posted: Dec 10, 2019 9:41 AM

In October 2018, the value of China's exports to the United States reached an all time record high of $52.2 billion. Although the tariff war between the two nations had begun in earnest six months earlier, Chinese exporters raced to beat even higher tariffs that would take effect in 2019, artificially inflating the country's exports figures in the final months of 2018.

One year later, measured against that unusually high mark, the value of China's exports to the United States has crashed thanks to those higher tariffs. The total value of China's exports to the U.S. was $40.1 billion in October 2019, a 23.1% year over year decline.

The large percentage decline in the value of China's exports to the U.S. is very evident in our chart tracking the exchange rate-adjusted, year-over-year growth rate of the two nations' exports to each other. 

Curiously, U.S. exports to China are only slightly lower in October 2019 than they were a year earlier, which is attributable to China's strategy of targeting U.S. soybeans early in the tariff war. China's tariffs on U.S. soybeans in 2018 led Chinese importers to effectively boycott the U.S. crop that year, where a year later, very little additional negative effect is being observed from what might be considered to be China's most effective retaliatory tariff to date.

That's despite China waiving its tariffs on both U.S.-produced soybeans and pork in its attempt to undo some of the self-inflicted damage related in part to some of the unintended consequences of its tariff war strategy. Unfortunately, the nature of that damage is such that China's short-term demand for soybeans has been greatly diminished, with at least 41% of its domestic hog population lost to African Swine Fever. China won't need to import the kind of quantities of soybeans it was prior to the tariff war for several years, where it may be able to get by with soybeans exported from the world's second and third-largest soybean producers, Brazil and Argentina.

Our final chart shows how large the combined loss of trade between the U.S. and China is when measured against the counterfactual for how great it could be, if not for the tariff war.

Here's the takeaway comment from the chart: In October 2019, the gap between the pre-trade war trend and the trailing twelve month average of the value of goods exchanged between the U.S. and China expanded to $14.2 billion. The cumulative gap since March 2018 has grown to $101.2 billion. As you can see in the chart, the magnitude of actual trade losses from 2018 to 2019, as measured by the rolling 12-month average indicated by the heavy black line, exceeds the actual trade losses that were recorded from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession.