Why Trump’s trade threats can’t hurt China much: Economist

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Protectionist threats leveled against China are likely to run into one big roadblock: Often, there's nowhere else for U.S. consumers to shop.

Julian Evans-Pritchard, a China economist at Capital Economics, noted that even if U.S. President Donald Trump takes the hardest possible line on trade, the damage to China's gross domestic product (GDP) would be relatively limited.

"We estimate that if trade with the U.S. halted overnight, China would take a hit of 3 percent of GDP, taking into account knock on effects on employment and consumer spending," Evans-Pritchard said at Capital Economics' annual conference in Singapore on Tuesday.

"But trade with the U.S. won't dry up completely even if Trump does impose steep tariffs," he added.

Evans-Pritchard noted that half of U.S. imports to China are machines and electronics.

"The largest categories are laptops, mobile phones and tablets, goods for which China is responsible for over 70 percent of global production," he said. "This means that in the short run at least, U.S. consumers will have little choice but to continue to purchase many Chinese made products, implying a much smaller and manageable hit to Chinese GDP."

During his campaign, Trump vowed to label the country a currency manipulator for the purposes of a competitive trade advantage on his first day in office and threatened to impose a tariff of as much as 45 percent on China's exports to the U.S.

On Thursday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC that the administration would stick to the existing process to judge whether China was a currency manipulator. By those standards, China doesn't match the definition.

The U.S. Treasury's rules and regulations require three criteria before the U.S. could impose "meaningful penalties" on countries that failed to adopt appropriate trade policies: A significant bilateral trade surplus with the U.S.; a material current account surplus larger than 3 percent of gross domestic product; and persistent interventions to keep its currency weak.

According to the Treasury's assessment report in October, China only met the first criterion.

In fact, amid a surge of capital outflows, China's policymakers have appeared to be supporting in recent months, not trying to push it lower.

But in an interview with Reuters on Thursday last week, shortly after Mnuchin's comments, Trump called China the "grand champions" of currency manipulation, saying he hasn't "held back" on the manipulator label despite not following through with his campaign vow.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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