Triumphant tones coming from the White House over the weekend are inconsequential, Moody's chief economist said Monday, deflating hopes that the U.S. is gaining major ground in its negotiations with China aimed at averting a trade war.
"I think it's a lose-lose. There are no winners here," Mark Zandi told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" on Monday. "This is face-saving, because clearly they're not going come to terms on anything — at least, not in the near-team."
Zandi was referring to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's announcement Sunday that a looming trade war was "on hold" as the world's two largest economies agreed to drop their tariff threats and discuss parameters for a wider trade agreement.
China consented to continue discussing measures under which it would purchase more U.S. products in order to reduce the $335 billion annual trade deficit between the two, but no specific dollar number was put forward. Zandi pointed to this as evidence that neither Washington nor Beijing had a plan, nor did either know what it specifically was they wanted from the ongoing talks.
"When you get right down to it, what exactly are they going to do? Are they going lower the Chinese-U.S. bilateral trade deficit? It's just not going to happen. They're kicking it down the road because they really don't know what they want," Zandi said.
'A silly debate argument'
President Donald Trump had initially set out a demand that China close its trade surplus by $200 billion, to which Beijing has not acquiesced. Zandi criticized this figure, noting that U.S. exports to China are currently $150 billion annually, and that it doesn't have the capacity to produce and export that scale of increase in goods to China.
"What's that going to buy? For $200 billion?" the economist asked. "We don't want to sell them technology, where our comparative advantage is, so we're going to sell them $200 billion more of what? Soybeans? Boeing aircraft?"
Trade experts have argued that Chinese demand for these U.S. products will not sufficiently increase to the point where it would need to purchase such a volume of American goods.
Zandi added that the discussions should have instead been focused on structural issues like intellectual property (IP) protection for investors, echoing the sentiment of many economists that the trade deficit figure should not be the focus of the U.S.-China trade relationship.
"America wants the Chinese to buy $200 billion more of what America produces, but it's neither here nor there when it comes to protecting IP rights, which is really what we should be focused on here," he said. "I think it's a silly debate argument that is going to end up nowhere."
Other experts have warned that a deal with China focused on a dollar figure for trade is not a sustainable solution in the long term. Frank Lavin, a former U.S. under-secretary of commerce for international trade, told CNBC on Monday that a narrow focus on the trade imbalance misses the more pertinent issues at hand.
"If they (China) give you a check, watch out. They're sort of buying you off and getting you just to go away for that money, so be careful of that," Lavin said. "I'd say focus more on structural changes, getting market opening, fair treatment, level playing field, IP (intellectual property) issues, investment protection."
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer made this point Sunday, saying in a statement: "Real structural change is necessary. Nothing less than the future of tens of millions of American jobs is at stake."
'Fruitful and efficient'
Administration officials, meanwhile, touted the progress as a positive for the U.S., and markets have reacted positively to the news.
Chinese Vice Premier Liu He described the talks as "pragmatic, fruitful and efficient," a marked shift from more negative sentiment earlier in the week that led Trump to say Thursday that he "doubted" the trade negotiations would succeed.
A joint statement from the weekend's meetings said: "To meet the growing consumption needs of the Chinese people and the need for high-quality economic development, China will significantly increase purchases of United States goods and services." The purchase increases are said to be predominantly in the agricultural and energy sectors.
Talks between U.S. and Chinese officials have been underway in recent weeks following a rapid escalation in tensions between the two economic powerhouses.
Trump has long criticized China's growing trade surplus with the U.S., and in March set off a trade spat by proposing import tariffs on a number of Chinese goods. The move set off a tit-for-tat dispute with a series of threats from each country that proposed hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tariffs on each other's goods, sparking fears of a global trade war.