By Robert E. Scott
The wizard of the White House roared last week, and markets quaked from Shanghai to London. In the face of Beijing’s refusal to meet U.S. demands on intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer, President Donald Trump is ramping up tariffs on Chinese imports.
This may prove to be another ploy to coerce a trade deal from China’s negotiating team. But while president can indeed impose draconian tariffs on imports from China, it still won’t solve the most fundamental trade problem for America: chronic trade deficits.
To be sure, China is a growing problem for the U.S. economy. Last year, the United States racked up a $419 billion goods trade deficit with China—almost half of the nation’s entire international goods deficit.
And the U.S. has lost at least 3.4 million good-paying jobs, including 136,100 jobs in Pennsylvania, mostly in manufacturing, due to growing trade deficits with China since it entered the WTO in 2001.
For a long time, the fundamental cause of this growing trade chasm with China was Beijing’s deliberate currency undervaluation. Between 2000 and 2013, China invested more than $4 trillion—nearly 40 percent of its current GDP—in foreign currency assets, primarily U.S. Treasury securities.
And it paid off, since it drove down the value of the Chinese yuan relative to the U.S. dollar. This served as a massive subsidy for Chinese exports and a tax on U.S. products shipped to China.
It also made China’s products cheaper in third-country markets where American and Chinese goods compete head-to-head. The results have been clear—perpetually rising U.S. trade deficits with China and the world as a whole.
China then piled on massive subsidies for basic industries like steel, glass, and paper that it dumped in the U.S. market. Factor in the intellectual property it stole from businesses investing in mainland China, and Beijing was on its way to building up a vast cadre of state-owned enterprises that would eventually supplant some 60,000 U.S. factories.
It gets worse, however. Roughly 20 countries have pursued similar currency and industrial policies to generate persistent global trade surpluses, including Japan, Korea, and the European Union. Together, they have achieved a global trade surplus—including trade in services and other income flows—that exceeds $1.1 trillion annually.
Over the past five years, many of these countries have found that they no longer need to use official policy levers to manipulate their currencies.
Instead, their ongoing trade surpluses have generated massive amounts of private capital. And now, private investors in these countries—largely freed from the capital constraints that formerly bound them—are pouring their money into America’s financial markets. As a result, demand for dollar-backed assets keeps rising—and is spurring the dollar to new highs. And a more expensive dollar is making U.S. products uncompetitive in global markets.
President Trump undoubtedly likes to make deals. And he needs a China deal to bolster his 2020 campaign while pacifying Wall Street.
But it won’t make much difference for struggling U.S. manufacturers. His focus on China negotiations misses the mark, since he’s focused on technology transfer and intellectual property protections that will yield few tangible benefits for U.S. workers.
Not much will change unless the president focuses on policies to rebalance the dollar. And the dollar needs to decline not just against China’s yuan, but also the Yen, the Euro, and the currencies of other trade-surplus countries, including South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.
Candidate Trump had promised in the Wall Street Journal that “on day one” of his administration he would name China a currency manipulator.
His subsequent failure to tackle currency misalignment is the single biggest failure of his trade policy. And it is a direct result of his obeisance to Wall Street instead of the working men and women who put him in office.
Beijing can undoubtedly keep devaluing the Yuan to blunt the impact of any tariffs. But if we really want to tackle the root cause of growing trade deficits and job loss, we need a president who is willing to tackle an overvalued dollar. That’s where the trade battle is really being fought.
Bullying China into another meaningless trade deal that addresses the pet concerns of American corporations just isn’t going to get the job done.
Robert E. Scott is director of trade and manufacturing policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think-tank in Washington D.C.