Market Insider

US-China trade progress not expected before election

Key Points
  • Efforts to get China back to the table to talk trade are in their early stages, but strategists are skeptical they will amount to much.
  • China has been expected to wait to see the outcome of mid-term election to see how the new Congress shapes up and whether it weakens President Trump's hand.
  • The Trump administration may be seeking talks before imposing $200 billion in new tariffs because it is concerned about a negative market reaction ahead of the election.
China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump
Fred Dufour | AFP | Getty Images

U.S. officials are reportedly seeking a round of high-level talks with China before the next series of tariffs are imposed, but strategists were skeptical the proposed talks will do much to ratchet down trade tensions before the November election.

"I think they are genuinely concerned about financial markets reaction of going for tariffs on $200 billion on imports from China. That's a big hit. The financial markets have been very skittish about these trade threats," said Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics. "They risk triggering a shock prior to the November election."

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that a group of senior officials, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, invited their Chinese counterparts to meet on bilateral trade. The article, quoting sources, said the Trump administration is reaching out, in an effort to give Beijing another chance to address U.S. concerns before it imposes new tariffs on Chinese imports. The paper quoted unnamed sources.

Sources told CNBC the U.S. is in the early stages of proposing the discussions.

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The Trump administration has tariffs ready to go on $200 billion in Chinese imports, after a comment period on the tariffs ended last week. President Donald Trump also threatened even more tariffs, on another $267 billion in goods. Last week, a number of companies, including Apple and Intel, complained that tariffs would hurt business and result in higher prices.

Strategists have said they do not expect Chinese officials to move forward on trade until after they see the outcome of the November elections and whether Trump's hand is possibly weakened by it if Democrats make a big sweep.

"I think that I'm not expecting any big breakthroughs. I think what the administration is looking for is some immediate concessions," said Hufbauer. He said the Chinese could make concessions by ending tariffs on key agricultural products, like soy beans and pork, and end the requirement for technology companies to form joint ventures if they want to operate in China.

"That would be a fast deliverable. They decided they would start a charm offensive with U.S. companies, be nice to them instead of beating up on them. An extension of that could be to relax compulsory joint venture arrangements," he said.

The last meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials was last month and was led by David Malpass, the Treasury undersecretary for international affairs.

Marc Chandler, head of foreign exchange strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman, said the Mnuchin team is not likely to make much progress, even if it does meet with Chinese officials. He said headlines on the meeting did drive down the dollar in Wednesday trading, as they temporarily boosted stocks.

"The way Trump has conducted policy undermines the authority of the Treasury Department to negotiate trade agreements," he said.

The U.S. continues to push trade on other fronts, and the U.S. and Canada are meeting Thursday. Reports that Canada is willing to bend on its dairy protections was encouraging to some, who expect a deal in the near future.

A revised North American Free Trade Agreement would be a positive for the Trump administration ahead of the November election, but China is far stickier.

"The question is what is the right tactic to get from point A to point B, and there's an argument to be made that we need to tough in negotiations [with China]," said Tom Block, Fundstrat Washington policy strategist. "I think NAFTA is different. While there is general agreement China is acting inappropriately, there was general agreement that by and large NAFTA was a good partnership between these three countries."

Citigroup global economist Cesar Rojas expects a resolution in NAFTA by the last week in September, a deadline set by the U.S. Trade Representative. Canada reportedly made some concessions on dairy which boosted the Canadian dollar Wednesday.

"We think there could be an agreement between the U.S. and Canada but it will require concessions from both sides," he said. Rojas said the U.S. deal with Mexico was struck after both countries bent on some demands.

While the resolution on NAFTA could be close at hand, any agreement with China appears far off.

"While this is not a foregone conclusion, we believe trade tension is likely to get worse before it gets better," wrote Barclays economists Wednesday. This would have reduced 2017 merchandise trade volume between the U.S. and China by 25 percent, or $156.5 billion. But they expect the impact to take time, and they estimate a peak decline in annual trade volumes in five or six years.

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