It’s all about the trade war between the US and China this morning, and more specifically, how will Xi retaliate to Trump.
For those who missed the overnight fireworks, late on Monday, President Trump asked the US Trade Representative to identify USD 200BN in Chinese goods for further tariffs of 10% which will be imposed if China refuses to change its practices and goes ahead with its retaliation threat, while he also stated that China raising tariffs is unacceptable and that the US will pursue tariffs on another USD 200bln of Chinese goods if China increases tariffs yet again.
Predictably, China – which last week reacted instantly to Trump’s first round of $50BN in tariffs – again responded immediately, wasting no time in accusing Trump of “blackmail.” China’s commerce ministry said on its website that if the US “irrationally” moves forward with the tariffs then China has no choice but to “forcefully fight back” with “qualitative” and “quantitative” measures.
“China’s response is to safeguard the interests of the country and its people,” China’s Mofcom said, adding that the US “practice of extreme pressure and blackmail departed from the consensus reached by both sides during multiple negotiations and has also greatly disappointed international society”.
But now that the chips are on the table, and Trump is locked into a tit-for-tat strategy with China from which neither he nor Xi can “defect” without losing face, the question is how exactly will China retaliate to punish the US while minimizing the damage to China’s economy as much as possible.
There are 6 possible things that China can do at this time, in order of escalating severity:
- China could de-escalate tensions by presenting a list of actions it will follow to reduce its significant trade deficits in services with the US. This could affect education service institutions, the local tourist industry, and entertainment. However, as the CFR’s Brad Setser writes, it increasingly looks like the Administration is putting China in a position where China cannot make concessions without appearing to cave – which most think China won’t do. Setser, not alone, has trouble seeing a de-escalation option if Trump goes through with the $200b
- China will likely launch an economic subsidy for its economy in the form of further easing in financial conditions to offset any potential trade-drag. Some, such as Deutsche Bank have proposed that in order to offset the negative hit to its consumers, China will loosen policy such as tolerating the property and land market boom in tier 3 cities and cutting the RRR twice over the rest of this year to partly offset the potential drags. This would also involve a modest devaluation of the Yuan.
- China could unleash differential treatment of local enterprises: as some have suggested, Beijing could simply opt not apply its “market access liberalization” policy recently announced. This could greatly disadvantage US firms greatly. Beijing could also engage in an aggressive crackdown on US firms operating in China (Apple), hinder border passage of US products (automotive), or pursue antitrust and monopoly allegations against US tech names (Micron).
- China could also choose a diplomatic retaliation, and order Kim Jong Un to scuttle the recent agreement North Korea signed with the US, humiliating Trump by showing that it was Beijing all along who made the US-N. Korea summit possible and successful.
- China could pick an aggressive route, and instead of a mild depreciation, it could aggressively pursue a weaker Yuan to boost trade competitiveness: which, ironically, is the catalyst behind much of the Trump administration’s animosity toward China. To achieve this, China would relaxing some of the capital control measures that have helped strengthen the renminbi in the past 2 years. That said, such a move would unleash sizable outflow demand, while boosting precious metals and cryptos. The US would also brand China a currency manipulator.
- China, finally, could pick the nuclear option, and gradually or suddenly liquidate its Treasury holdings. This is a long-running worry by markets given China’s $1.2 trillion in Treasury holdings. In January, Bloomberg reported this was a possibility which was at the time denied by China State Administration of Foreign Exchange; however the recent liquidation of half of Russia‘s Treasurys was seen by some as a rehearsal for what would happen if Beijing decides to pursue this approach.
It could also be some combination of the above or simply continue the tit-for-tat: according to overnight press reports, China is already preparing a second round of tariffs on US energy; US oil, gas and coal face 25% levy in threatened second round of duties.
As a reminder, as noted above whatever China does, the biggest challenge for Beijing would be how to inflicts the least damage on its own economy and credibility while hurting the US. UP until now, China has been responding in a tit-for-tat manner, and has avoided implementing more damage than the US has with a measure conciliatory tone in its statements. That could soon change.
Finally, there is the markets angle. While Beijing would likely want to avoid a currency or bond market war, a recent analysts by Goldman concluded that for the tit-for-tat stalemate to be broken, the markets would have to tumble. And while many believe that China would prefer to avoid directly riling markets, it may soon have no other choice if it plans to send Trump a message. After all, overnight the Shanghai Composite just plunged to the lowest level in 2 years. Will Xi now return the favor? Keep an eye on TSY yields and, of course stocks, for the answer.