Casualties of the Trade War

Trade wars are harder to assess than military wars, where you can tell who’s winning and losing by such metrics as ground gained or lost and casualties inflicted or suffered. The stock markets are probably the best indicator of how a trade war is going, and lately they indicate that President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is not going well.
When the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a record high on July 15 Trump took full credit, but we don’t expect he’ll assume any responsibility for the 2.9 percent drop on Monday nor the 6 percent drop since the record high. The huge sell-offs in nearly every sector of the economy have clearly been a response to the tariffs Trump had imposed on Chinese imports and the retaliatory tariffs China imposed on the considerable exports America’s agricultural and aviation and other high-tech industries relied on selling to the first or second largest economy in the world. China has also signaled it will resume manipulating its currency to gain a foreign trade advantage, Trump has urged via “tweet” that the Federal Reserve Board retaliate by artificially weakening the dollar, and so far the smart money isn’t buying Trump’s assurances that America is going wind up with the greatest deal in the history of the world.
We can’t claim to be smart money, but we’re longtime observers of geopolitics and global trade and domestic political pressures, and we figure the smart money is right to be worried. Trump claims to have a Nietzschean will to power and personal rapport with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping that will soon result in that greatest deal in the history of the world, but he went bankrupt several times in the casino business despite house odds and he’s clearly in the inferior position in these asymmetrical negotiation.
Trump’s trade policies are inflicting severe damage on China’s economy, but his good buddy and brutal dictator Xi needn’t worry about that. He doesn’t have to face reelection, the repressed Chinese press isn’t going to make a fuss about an economic downturn, protesters will be cowed from gathering on the streets, the country’s privately held businesses will try to stay privately held, and in keeping with China’s ancient traditions Xi’s looking well past the current spat and a hundred or so years down the road.
Trump, on the other hand, has to deal with the daily headlines from that pesky free press and independent Fed and powerful companies and restive farm state Republicans and the rest of our democratic process, and he never thinks beyond the next news cycle. As much as he clearly envies his dear friend Xi’s dictatorial powers, Trump is obliged to appease the gods of the stock market and public opinion. There are just 15 months until the next presidential election, which is a blink in the eye of a Chinese dictator and an eternity to an American president, so between now and election day we don’t expect Trump to deliver to America the greatest trade deal in the history of the world.
The best case scenario is that Trump agrees to a desultory return to the status quo, with China making some slight concessions in their undeniably unfair trading practices, and Trump’s die-hard fans calling it the best trade deal in the history of the world. The smart money won’t be impressed, but given how crazy the Democrats are these days Trump might yet win reelection if the stock markets are slightly up and the unemployment rate remains low.

— Bud Norman

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