The truth about Trump's China tariffs: Many major US companies didn't think they were still a big deal

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C-suites are less concerned about trade, CNBC CFO Survey shows
Key Points
  • CFOs of U.S.-based corporations do not think reduction in tariffs are the key to resolving the trade war with China.
  • On Sunday, President Donald Trump tweeted a threat to add additional tariffs against Chinese goods. That shook investor confidence around the globe Monday, though the U.S. market came well off its lows before the day's trading was over.

President Donald Trump's Sunday tweet threatening another round of tariffs against China shook investor confidence in markets around the world on Monday, but within the C-suites of major U.S. corporations, tariffs have not been viewed as among the most important issues to resolve in a trade war.

Reduction of tariffs to pre-2016 levels was cited only by 5% of U.S.-based CFOs as an issue that they would like to see come out of a trade deal with China. Elimination of tariffs also was cited by only 5% of U.S.-based CFOs.

Recent headlines citing Trump administration officials had hinted the trade war was nearing an end, and Chinese officials are still scheduled for meetings in Washington on Friday, even after Trump's tariff threat. The biggest thing U.S. companies are looking for from a trade deal is "increased enforcement of U.S. patents and trademarks," which was cited by 40% of CFOs. Another 30% cited increased access to Chinese markets for American companies.

Containers stacked at a port in Lianyungang in the northeastern Jiangsu province of China.
VCG | Getty Images

In the Europe, Middle East, Africa region and Asia-Pacific region, though, the tariffs issue is a much bigger deal. Forty percent of EMEA CFOs cited reduction of tariffs as the No. 1 issue, and another 20% of EMEA CFOs cited elimination of all tariffs. In Asia 30% of CFOs cited elimination of all tariffs as what their companies would like to most see come out of a trade deal.

The CNBC Global CFO Council represents some of the largest public and private companies in the world, collectively managing nearly $5 trillion in market value across a wide variety of sectors. The second-quarter 2019 survey was conducted from April 23-30 among 45 members of the council.

Why big companies haven't worried about tariffs

"Notwithstanding all the noise, tariffs — at least to now — haven't mattered to our economy outside agriculture," said Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute and expert on international trade. "If the president were to apply all the tariffs he's threatened, that would matter, but to now it's more been about disrupting the supply chains running through smaller economies."

Scissors said it makes sense that CFOs from Europe and Asia have been the ones more concerned about tariffs and less concerned about intellectual property than their U.S. counterparts. "Those countries don't care who gets the benefits from IP, since it's not theirs, as long as production remains globalized. U.S. CFOs, of course, care quite a lot because it's our IP."

If the threatened round of tariffs become real, it could change the corporate concern level, depending on the sector, Scissors said. "If we go to and hold 25% on $200 billion for an extended period, the Chinese have to ratchet up their retaliation. Since, as the president frequently points out, the Chinese can't match us on import tariffs, their most likely target is U.S. firms operating in the PRC. So the next split is likely to be firms who don't see a large percentage of their revenue from China sales and therefore continue to care a great deal about IP and market access, and firms that do (Apple, Boeing, Caterpillar, etc.), who will change to saying U.S. tariffs are the biggest problem."

U.S. duties, which already are higher than those of most developed economies, would surge to levels above those of many emerging-market countries if Trump's latest tariff threats were enacted, CNBC's Steve Liesman pointed out on Monday.

CFOs around the globe were becoming more comfortable with the Chinese economic story as a resolution to the trade war came into focus. In the first-quarter survey, CFOs described the Chinese economy as "declining"; in Q2 CFOs elevated their rating of the Chinese economy to "stable."

C-suite views on trade policy also moderated in the second quarter. Roughly 42% of CFOs say U.S. trade policy will be a negative for their businesses over the next six months, down sharply from a peak of 75.7% in Q4 and 63% in Q1. Meanwhile, 15.6% say trade policy will have a positive impact, up from roughly 5% in Q1. Among U.S. CFOs, 35% said U.S. trade policy will be a negative over the next six months. A combined 60% said trade policy would have a positive impact (15%) or no impact (45%).

Views on US trade policy

Wall Street analysts and economists remained somewhat confident a deal would be reached.

"The president's negotiating tactics may be unconventional, but the likelihood of some kind of deal is still higher than nothing getting done," wrote Tobias Levkovich, chief U.S. equity strategist at Citigroup in a Monday note to clients.

"It's all sort of a posturing position," Patrick Palfrey, senior U.S. equities strategist at Credit Suisse told CNBC on Monday. "Trump, at the end of the day, is looking to make sure his constituents get the best deal possible, and he wants to make sure he can deliver it. Going down to the wire in negotiations is part of the posturing process."

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told reporters on Monday "We're moving backwards instead of forwards, and in the president's view that's not acceptable. Over the last week or so, we have seen an erosion in commitments by China."

Even with the administration's sudden shift away from the commentary in recent weeks that had suggested a deal was close to done, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended trading with a recovery of most of the 471 points that it had been down at its Monday low, finishing with a decline of 66 points. But stocks sank again at the open on Tuesday with another loss of several-hundred points in the Dow.

The EMEA region is where fears about trade policy remain a major source of business uncertainty, with 60% of EMEA CFOs saying U.S. trade policy will be a negative over the next six months. That is twice the level of trade policy fears in Asia, where 30% of CFOs site U.S. policy as a likely negative.

CNBC reported on Monday that Chinese Vice Premier Liu He would be part of the delegation headed to D.C. Two senior administration officials described Liu as "the closer," since he had been given authority to negotiate on President Xi Jinping's behalf.

(Note: The CNBC Global CFO Council Survey for the second quarter was conducted from April 23 –30, 2019. Forty-five of the 124 global members responded to the survey (20 North America, 15 EMEA and 10 APAC).

Full results from the Q2 survey below:

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