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US Treasury was warned by its advisory committee this past week that it will have to sell an extra $12 trillion of US government T-bonds over the coming decade as the US federal government debt increases from current $21 trillion to $33 trillion. On same day, US Senators, Sanders and Shumer, introduced a bill to require corporations to pay more wages and benefits if they want to keep buying back their stock and paying dividends. The total combined buybacks-dividends in 2018 was $1.4 trillion, up from $1.1 trillion in 2017 and from $500 billion in 2009. And all that just for the Fortune 500 largest US corporations. Since the 2008 crisis nearly $9 trillion has been distributed by US corporations to their shareholders.

Listen to my Alternative Visions radio show of February 8, 2018 for the discussion on these and related topics of the past week.

GO TO:

http://prn.fm/alternative-visions-12-trillion-crisis/

Or GO TO:

http://alternativevisions.podbean.com

SHOW ANNOUNCEMENT

As the main topic of the show, Dr. Rasmus discusses the letter to the US Treasury by the Treasury Bond Advisory Committee (TBAC) this past week, warning that $12 trillion more in US Treasury bond sales will be needed over the next decade in order to finance rising US government debt. The $12T more per the TBAC is about equal to the net increase in federal debt (from current $21T to $33T) that Rasmus has been predicting will occur by 2028 due to Trump tax cuts, rising defense spending, and the next recession around the corner—with Interest payments on that debt alone equaling $900 billion a year, per the CBO. In a related topic, Rasmus discusses the latest data that show that Fortune 500 corporations’ stock buybacks plus dividend payouts will reach $1.4 trillion for 2018—up from $1.1 trillion in 2017 and from $500 billion in 2009. How the two trends of escalating government debt and accelerating $trillion a year plus buybacks-dividends are connected. The latest on Trump-Powell confrontation over rate hikes and coming breakdown of Russia-Saudi agreement on oil production are also addressed.

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How the US manipulates its dollar, the global reserve and trading currency, to crash the economy of targeted countries for regime change and prepare domestic discontent to enable legal coup d’etats; How US sanctions intensify the pressure b y denying the target country essential consumer and business goods, and closing off access to export markets; How ideological offensives charging ‘corruption’ provide the political cover; And how US allies are lined up in the final phase. Venezuela today as a classic case example of 21st century US imperialism strategy and tactics.

To Listen to the discussion on my Feb. 1, 2019 Alternative Visions radio show,

GO TO:

http://prn.fm/alternative-visions-dollar-imperialism-trumps-proxy-war-venezuela/

Or GO TO:

http://alternativevisions.podbean.com

SHOW ANNOUNCEMENT:

Dr. Rasmus and guest, Alan Benjamin, discuss the latest efforts of Trump administration to engineer a regime change in Venezuela. Rasmus explains how the US employs financial imperialism to destabilize regimes, using the US dollar, sanctions, freezing of assets, cutting off access to trade and markets, denial of loans by US and world banks, and other measures as a prelude to creating an economic crisis in the target country to foster domestic political unrest and opposition forces to topple existing governments. Rasmus explains how this has been developing in Venezuela, and why it has recently intensified over the past six months. Guest Alan Benjamin describes recent political developments in Venezuela and the growing potential for military intervention there using US proxy governments, Brazil and Colombia. Efforts by Europe and Mexico to mediate. Possible responses by Russia and China. And solidarity movements emerging in the US to avoid a US proxy war against Venezuela. (go to jackrasmus.com blog for 2016 article: “How the US Destabilizes Argentina, Brazil, & Venezuela). For emerging US solidarity movements, check outwww.USlaboragainstwar.org)

Senior negotiators of the US (Lighthizer) and China (Liu He) have been meeting in Washington this past week (Jan. 30-31) as the US-China trade war approaches a climax. China continues publicly to offer concessions to the US on market access to China, US corporate and bank majority ownership of China companies, and China resumption of purchases of US farm and other goods. Meanwhile, the US continues to assume a hard line on China technology development, going after China companies and arranging US allies to do the same. The US also began proceedings to extradite from Canada the co-chairperson of the giant China tech company, Huawei. But news of what’s been agreed to or not thus far in negotiations has been tightly controlled, apart from Trump tweets and typical hyperbole that discussions have been ‘great’. No meeting has been scheduled yet between Trump and China president, Xi–which would be the true indicator that a tentative agreement has been reached. Reportedly, negotiators will continue at a high level mid-February in Beijing, and US trade ambassador, Lighthizer, has announced he will travel to China to continue discussions.

On the eve of last week’s negotiators, I was asked to give an hour interview on TV by the Peninsula Peace and Justice center in Palo Alto, California. Topics focused on China-US trade, NAFTA 2.0, and Trump policies in general. That hour interview can be viewed on Youtube at the following link:

https://youtu.be/xoR2eMIBgPk

Dr. Jack Rasmus

Watch my latest TV interview on ‘Other Voices TV’ on January 16, 2019 discussing latest developments on US trade-budget deficits, Trump’s ‘dual track’ trade policy, and upcoming US-China Trade negotiations scheduled for January 30.

TO LISTEN, go to Youtube at:

(My just published piece on Davos and the global economy’s instability and risks)

“At Davos, Switzerland every year the global capitalist elite gather to party…and to prepare for the year ahead. This year more than 1500 private jets will reportedly fly in. Thousands more of their underling staff will travel via business class to handle their personal, and corporate, logistics. Shielded from the media and the pubic, the big capitalists share views in back rooms and listen to experts on finance, government policy, technology, and the economy. The experts are especially probed to identify and explain the next ‘black swan’ or ‘gray rhino’ event about to erupt. Wealthy celebrities are invited to entertain them as well after evening dinner and cocktails. But the real networking goes on privately afterwards, in small groups or one on one, among the big capitalists themselves or in private meetings with heads of state, finance ministers, and central bank chairmen.

Typically each annual meeting has a theme. This year there are several: the slowing global economy, the fracturing of the international trade system, the growing levels of unsustainable debt everywhere, volatile financial asset markets with asset bubbles beginning to deflate, rising political instability and autocratic drift in both the advanced and emerging economies, accelerating income inequality worldwide—to mention just a short list.

On the eve of this year’s World Economic Forum gathering, some of the most powerful, wealthy, and more prescient capitalists have begun to speak out to their capitalist cousins, raising red flags about what they believe is an approaching crisis.

Ray Dalio, the billionaire who found and manages the world’s biggest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, warned that he and other investors had squeezed financial markets to such “levels where it is difficult to see where you can squeeze” further. He publicly admitted in a Bloomberg News interview that, in the future profits will be low “for a very very long time”. The era of central banks providing free money, low rates, and excess liquidity have run their course, according to Dalio. He added the global economy is mired in dangerously high levels of debt, comparing it to the 1930s.

Paul Tudor Jones, another big finance capitalist, similarly warned of unsustainable debt levels—created by companies binging on cheap credit since 2009—that “could be systemically threatening”. Not just government debt. But especially corporate debt, where levels in the US alone have doubled to more than $9 trillion since 2009 (most of it high risk ‘junk bond’ and nearly as risky ‘BBB’ investment grade corporate bond debt).

Almost as worrisome, one might add, is the now more than $1 trillion leverage loan market debt in the US (i.e. loan equivalent of junk bonds). US household debt is also now approaching $15 trillion. And US national government debt, at $21 trillion, is about to surge over the next decade to $33 trillion due to the Trump 2018 tax cuts. And that’s not counting trillions more in US state and local government debt; or the tens of trillions of new dollarized debt undertaken by emerging market economies since 2010; or the $5 trillion in non-performing bank loans in Europe and Japan; or the even more private sector debt escalation in China.

Corporate debt levels are not alone the problem, however. Debt can rise so long as financial asset prices and real profits do so—i.e. provide the cash flow available to service the debt. But when profits and asset prices (of stocks, bonds, derivatives, currency exchange rates, commodity futures, etc.) no longer rise, or start to turn down, then debt service (principal & interest) cannot be repaid. Defaults often follow, causing investor confidence to slide. Real investment, employment, and household incomes thereafter collapse, and the real economy is dragged down in turn. The real decline further exacerbates the collapse of financial asset prices, and precipitates a mutual feedback of financial and real economic collapse.
And financial markets began to deflate in 2018; and it is now becoming increasingly clear that the real side of the global economy is slowing rapidly as well.

In February 2018 the first early warning appeared for financial markets. Stocks plunged in the US, Europe and even China. They temporarily recovered—a ‘dead cat bounce’ as they say before an even deeper decline in the fall. Then oil and commodity futures prices collapsed by 40% or more in late summer-early fall 2018. Stock markets followed again in October-December 2018 by 30-40% in US, China, Europe, and key emerging markets. Key emerging market currencies—Argentina, Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa—all fell precipitously as well. And housing prices from the UK to Australia to China to New York began to implode as the year ended. In January 2019 stock markets recovered—i.e. a classic, short term, bull market recovery in what is today’s fundamentally long term global bear market.

Dalio’s and Jones’ worries of unsustainable debt and pending crisis have started to become real, in other words.

Becoming real as well is evidence of emerging defaults, a critical phase that typically follows asset markets’ decline and slowing profits. In the US there’s the Sears default, with JCPenney in the wings. And the giant corporation, once the largest in the world, the General Electric Corp., slouching toward default. Its global profits slowing and stock price imploding, GE is now desperately selling off its best assets to raise cash to pay its excess debt. It’s not alone. Scores of energy companies involved in US shale oil and gas production are teetering on the brink. In Europe, there’s deepening troubles at Deutschebank, and just about all the Italian banks, and UBS in Switzerland, and the Greek banks. In Japan, there’s trillions of dollars in non-performing bank loans as well, which Japan’s central bank continues to cover up. And then there’s China, with more than $5 trillion in bad loans held by local governments, by shadow bankers, and by its state owned enterprises that the China central bank and government keep bailing out by issuing ‘trusted loans’ (i.e. equivalent of junk bonds in US).

Default cracks have begun to appear everywhere in the global economy, in other words, major indicators that the excess debt accumulation and financial bubbles of the past decade cannot be ‘serviced’ (principal-interest paid) and have begun to negatively impact the global economy.

What’s becoming clear is that the next crisis will not emerge from the housing sector with excess debt and price bubbles driven by subprime mortgage loans and related financial derivatives. What’s more likely is that the next crisis will emerge from debt defaults and collapsing real investment by non-financial corporations. Moreover, the tipping point is nearer than most in business or media will admit.

Trump’s 2018 tax cuts simply threw a veil over the real condition of corporate performance in the US this past year. The tax cuts provided a windfall, one time subsidy to corporations’ bottom line. It is estimated that US S&P 500 corporations’ profits were boosted 22% by the Trump windfall tax cuts alone. Since S&P 500 profits for 2018 were roughly 27%, it means actual profits were barely 5%. That’s the real situation going into 2019—a condition that assures US stock markets, junk bond markets, and leveraged loan markets in particular will experience even greater contraction in 2019 than they did in 2018. The bubbles will continue to pop.

In the global economy, it is even more evident that by the end of 2019 it is likely there will be recession in wide sectors of the real global economy amidst further asset markets’ price declines.
In Europe, the growth engine of Germany is showing sure signs of slowing. Manufacturing and industrial production in the closing months of 2018 fell by 1.9%. After a GDP decline in the third quarter 2018, another fourth quarter 2018 German contraction will mean a technical recession. Equal to at least a third of all the Eurozone economy, as goes Germany goes Europe. France and Italy manufacturing are also contracting. Nearly having stagnated at 0.2% in the third quarter, the Europe economy in general may have slipped into recession already. And all that before the negative effects of a UK Brexit or an Italian banks’ implosion or deepening protests in France are further felt.

In emerging market economies, the steady rise of the US dollar in 2018 (driven by rising US central bank interest rates) devastated emerging market economies across the board. Rising dollar values translated into corresponding emerging market currency collapse. That triggered capital flight out of these economies, and their falling stock and bond markets in turn. To stem the outflow, their central banks raised interest rates, which precipitated deep recession in the real economy, while their collapsing currencies generated higher import prices and general inflation in their economies as well. That was the story from Argentina to Brazil to Turkey to South Africa and even to Asia in places.

The US halting of interest rate hikes in 2019 may relieve pressure on emerging market economies somewhat in 2019. But that easing will be more than offset by China’s 2019 economic slowdown now underway. In the second half of 2018 investment, consumer spending, and manufacturing all slowed markedly in China. Officially at 6.6% for 2018, according to China statistics, China’s real economy is no doubt growing less than 6% due to the methods used to estimate growth in China. Its manufacturing began to contract in late 2018, and with it a significant slowdown in private investment and even consumer spending on autos and other durable goods. China’s slowing will mean less demand for emerging market economies’ products and commodities, including oil and industrial metals. A respite for emerging market economies from the US dollar rising will thus be offset by China slowing.
When both financial asset markets and the real economy are together slowing it is a particularly strong ‘red flag’ warning for the economic road ahead. And more contractions in stocks and other financial assets, together with slowing of manufacturing, housing, and GDP in Europe, US, and Japan in 2019, are likely which means trouble ahead in 2019.

Along with all the data increasingly pointing to financial asset deflation gaining a longer term foothold—and with real economy indicators like manufacturing, housing, GDP, exports as well now flashing red—there is also a growing list of political hotspots and potential ‘tail risks’ emerging in the global economy. Some of the ‘black swans’ are identifiable; some yet to be.

In the US, the government shutdown and the prospect of policy deadlock between the parties for two more years could qualify as a source of further economic disruption. In Europe, there are several ‘tail risks’: the Brexit situation coming to a head in April, the challenge to the Eurozone by the new Italian populist government, the chronic and deep street protests continuing in France, and the general rightward social and political drift throughout eastern Europe. In Latin America there’s the extremely repressive policies of Bolsonaro in Brazil and Macri in Argentina, which could end in mass public uprisings at some point. In Asia, there’s corruption and scandals in Malaysia and India. And then there’s the US-trade war with China, which some factions in the US are trying to leverage to launch a new Cold War. Not least, there’s the potential collapse of negotiations between the US and North Korea that could lead to renewed threats of military conflict. All these ‘political instabilities’ , given their number and scope, if left unresolved, or allowed to worsen, will have a further negative effect on business and consumer confidence—now already slowing rapidly—and in turn investment and therefore economic growth.

Ray Dalio’s and Tudor Jones’ warnings on the eve of Davos have been echoed by a growing list of capitalist notables and their government servants and echoes. IMF chairperson, Christine Lagarde, has been repeatedly declaring publicly that global trade and the economy are slowing. Reflecting Europe in particular, where exports are even more critical to the economy, she has especially been warning about a potential severe US-China trade war disrupting the global trading system—and global economy in turn. The IMF has been issuing repeated downward adjustments of its global economic forecasts. So too has the World Bank. As have a growing number of big bank research departments, from Nomura Bank in Japan to UBS bank in Europe. Former US central bank chairs, Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke, have also jumped in and have been raising red flags about the course of the US and global economies. Former Fed chair, Greenspan, has even declared the US is already on a recession path from which it can’t now extricate itself.

Given all the emerging corroborating data, the red flags and warnings about the current state of the global economy, and the growing global political uncertainties, the Dalios, the Jones, and others among the Davos crowd are especially worried this year.
On the eve of the Forum’s first day on January 23, 2019, a leading discussion topic among the cocktail parties is the buzz about the just leaked private newsletter from billionaire Seth Klarman, who heads one of the world’s biggest funds, the Baupost Group. In his newsletter leaked to the New York Times, and widely circulated among early Davos crowd attendees, Klarman reportedly chides his readers-investors about not paying more attention to the social and political instabilities growing worldwide, about Trump’s direction which is “quite dangerous”, and the US in effect retreating from global leadership, leaving a dangerous vacuum behind. Investors have also become too complacent about global debt and risk levels now rising dangerously, he argues. It could all very well lead to a financial panic, he adds. The US in particular is at an ‘inflection point’. He ominously concludes, “By the time such a crisis hits, it will likely be too late to get our house in order”.

The recent statements by Dalio, Tudor Jones, Klarman, and the others reminds one of the last crisis and crash of 2008. When Charlie Prince, CEO of Citigroup, the biggest bank at the time, was asked after the crisis why he didn’t see it coming and do something to avoid the toxic mortgage-derivatives bomb and protect his investors and customers, Prince replied he did see it coming but could do nothing to stop it. His investors and customers demanded his bank continue—like the other banks were—investing in subprime mortgages, lending to shadow banks, selling risky derivatives and thereby continuing to make money for them, just as the other banks were doing. Charlie’s response why he did nothing to stop it or prepare was, ‘when you come to the dance, you have to dance’.

No doubt the Davos crowd will be partying and dancing over the next several days in their securely gated, posh Switzerland retreat. After all, the last ten years has increased their capital incomes by literally tens of trillions of dollars. And capitalists are driven by a mindless herd mentality once they’ve made money. They believe they can continue doing so forever. They believe the money music will never stop. One can only wonder, if they’ll be dancing later this year to the same song as Charlie’s in 2008.

Jack Rasmus
January 23, 2019

Dr. Rasmus is author of the book, ‘Central Bankers at the End of Their Ropes: Monetary Policy and the Coming Depression’, Clarity Press, August 2017, and the forthcoming ‘The Scourge of Neoliberalism: US Policy from Reagan to Trump’, 2019. Jack hosts the Alternative Visions radio show on the Progressive Radio Network. He blogs at jackrasmus.com and his twitter handle is @drjackrasmus.com

byJack Rasmus
Copyright 2019

Summary Part I

In 2018 China and the US came to the brink of a bona fide trade war and then halted at the precipice. At the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires in late November 2018, Trump and China President, Xi, met offsite. The outcome was an agreement to put off further escalation of tariffs on both sides for another 90 days during which their trade teams would meet to try to seek a resolution. Economies of both countries were showing signs of growing weakness and instability by November. The indicators worsened notably in December. Trump agreed to postpone US announced tariffs on an additional $200 billion of China imports, effective January 1, 2019, and suspend increases on already existing tariffs from 10% to 25%, also scheduled for January 1. China agreed as well to postpone further its scheduled tariffs. In early weeks of January 2019, middle level officials of both China and the US began meeting to discuss details for subsequent higher level negotiations set for Washington on January 30, 2019.

Unlike Trump’s trade ‘war’ with US allies, which has always been ‘phony’ (see Part 1 of this article). Trump never envisioned major changes in US trade relations with US allies, starting with South Korea, then NAFTA trade partners, Mexico and Canada. Tariffs on steel and aluminum were offset by more than 3000 exemptions announced by the Trump administration. Tariffs on European autos, threatened by Trump, were suspended. And trade negotiations with Japan were left unscheduled.

Before the November 2018 US midterm Congressional elections, Trump sought just token adjustments to US-ally trade relations that he then exaggerated and boasted to his US domestic political base, claiming his ‘America First’ economic nationalism policies were delivering results. China-US trade was another matter.

On the surface, the China-US dispute appeared as the US attempting to reduce the trade deficit with China—although that US trade deficit with China had not changed much for the past several years. A second apparent US objective was the US long-standing demand that China open its markets to US business, which meant that China should allow US companies a greater than 50% ownership of their operations in China, especially US banks and financial corporations. But reducing the trade deficit and opening China markets were secondary objectives. The primary US objective, that became increasingly apparent over the course of 2018, was to prevent, or at least slow, China’s ‘2025’ technology development program. That program focused on next generation technologies like AI, cybersecurity and 5G wireless—the technologies of the future that new industries would be built upon. And, equally important, the technologies that would determine military dominance by 2030.

Throughout 2018 three factions within the US trade negotiation team would ‘fight it out’ over which of the three objectives of US-China trade relations would prove primary: reducing the trade deficit (mostly by China buying more US farm products from US agribusiness companies; allowing US corporations, especially banks, to have majority ownership and control of their operations in China; or US forcing China to stop its technology transfer and slow its nextgen technology development and thereby reduce the threat to US military dominance over the 2020s decade. A major faction fight roiled within the US trade team. The main contention was between the banking interests, led by ex-Goldman Sachs senior manager, US Treasury Secretary, Steve Minuchin, and on the other hand the anti-China hawks, reflecting US military industrial complex and Pentagon interests, led by US Trade Ambassador, Robert Lighthizer, and his allies, anti-China advisor to Trump, Peter Navarro, and later, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton.

What follows is Part II of the analysis of Trump’s Déjà vu China-US trade ‘war’ from last March 2018 through mid-January 2019.

The Real Trade War: China Technology

Trump’s trade strategy in relation to China has always been to pressure China on technology transfer and slow its nextgen technology development. Reducing the US-China trade deficit and getting China to open its markets to US financial interests have been objectives as well, but of secondary importance.

Early in 2018 China signaled publicly it would buy $100 billion a year more US products and open its markets to US corporate majority 51% or more ownership. It even granted 51% ownership to select global companies while negotiations with the US were underway. But it refused to make concessions on the technology issue. US defense companies, the Pentagon, the US military-industrial complex interests on the one hand, and US banks on the other, are the major players in determining US trade policy.

Throughout 2018 US trade policy is best described as schizophrenic. Was it Trump driving policy? His anti-China neocons and hawk advisors–Lighthizer, Navarro, and later John Bolton, appointed to the post of National Security Advisor to Trump in 2018, who later joined the administration? Was it Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who represents US banking and multinational corporate interests on the US trade team? Larry Kudlow, Trump’s interface to his domestic base? And what about Jared Kushner, son-in-law of Trump who has Trump’s closest ear, who has been serving as Trump’s interface to the three major factions on the US trade team? Throughout 2018, the factions contended for Trump’s support, with influence shifting and fluid among the various factions.

Pre-negotiations with China started in early March with Trump’s announcement of the steel-aluminum tariffs. After the tariff announcement, Trump began tweeting the idea that China should reduce its imports to the US by $100 billion. A day after the Office of US Trade Representative (OUST report) was issued by chief Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, Trump announced tariffs of $50 billion on China imports recommended by Lighthizer. However, a window of at least 60 days was required before any definition of the $50 billion or actual implementation by the US might occur, giving ample time for unofficial negotiations to occur between the countries’ trade missions. (Technically, the US could even wait for another six months before actually implementing any tariffs). Announcing intent to a dollar amount of tariffs is one thing; providing a list and definition of what goods would be tariffed is another; and setting a date they would take effect is still another.

China immediately sent its main trade negotiator, Liu He, to Washington and assumed a cautious, almost conciliatory approach at first. China responded initially in March with a modest $3 billion in tariffs on US exports. It also made it clear the $3 billion was in response to US steel and aluminum tariffs previously announced by Trump, and not Trump’s $50 billion tariff threat specifically targeting China. But China noted more action could follow, as it forewarned it was considering additional tariffs of 15% to 25% on US products, especially agricultural, in response to Trump’s $50 billion announcement.

China was waiting to see the US details. At the same time in April it signaled it was willing to open China brokerages and insurance companies to US 51% ownership (and possibly even 100% within three years). It also announced it would buy more semiconductor chips from the US instead of Korea or Taiwan. It was all a carefully crafted public response, designed not to escalate trade negotiations with the Trump administration prematurely. A series of token concessions and minimal tariff responses.

Behind the scenes China and US trade representatives continued to negotiate. By the end of March, all that had actually had occurred was Trump’s announcement of $50 billion in tariffs on China imports, but without details, plus China’s $3 billion token response to prior US steel-aluminum tariffs. From there, however, events began to deteriorate.

On April 3, 2018 Trump defined his threat of $50 billion of tariffs—25% on a wide range of 1300 of China’s consumer and industrial imports to the US. It was Lighthizer’s OUST Report’s recommended March list that launched Trump’s trade offensive with China. Influential business groups in the US, like the Business Roundtable, US Chamber of Commerce, and National Association of Manufacturers immediately criticized the move, calling for the US instead to work with its allies to pressure China to reform—not to use tariffs as the trade reform weapon. The anti-China hardline US factor brushed aside the criticism.

China now responded more firmly, promising an equal tariff response, declaring it was not afraid of a trade war with the US. That was an invitation for a Trump tweet and declaration he believed the US would not “lose a trade war” with China and maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to have one. He suggested that another $100 billion in US tariffs might get China’s attention.

China’s initial $3 billion tariffs, and China’s suggestion of more billions of 15%-25% tariffs, targeted US companies and agricultural production in Trump’s Midwest political base. This may have especially aggravated Trump, disrupting his plans to mobilize that base for domestic political purposes before the November 2018 elections. Trump’s typical approach to negotiating—employed repeatedly during his private business dealings before being elected—is to never let his adversary ‘one up’ him, as they say. He always keeps raising the stakes until the other side stops matching his demands. Then he negotiates back to original positions, controlling the negotiating agenda and maintaining the upper hand in the process.

China initially fell into Trump’s trap, responding to Trump’s $50 billion of tariffs announcement with its own $50 billion tariffs on 128 US imports to China. This time targeting US agricultural products and especially US soybeans, but also cars, oil and chemicals, aircraft and industrial productions—the production of which is also heavily concentrated in the Midwest US. China noted further it was prepared to announce another $100 billion in tariffs as well if Trump followed through with his threat of imposing $100 billion more tariffs. In less than a month, the character of negotiations had shifted.

In response to the ‘tit for tat’ tariff threats, the US stock markets plummeted during the first week of April. Trump advisors, Larry Kudlow and Steve Mnuchin, intervened publicly to dampen the effect of Trump’s remarks on the markets. Kudlow tried to assure investors, “These are just first proposals…I doubt that there will be any concrete actions for several months”. Kudlow said negotiations were continuing. The stock markets recovered again.

But who were investors supposed to believe—Trump or his advisors? They seemed to be talking in different directions. And how long would investors continue to believe the Kudlows and others that matters (and Trump) were under control, and there would be no trade war? China representatives noted that, contrary to Kudlow’s assurances to US markets and investors, there were no ongoing discussions between the two countries.

By the end of the first week of April, US trade objectives and strategy was becoming increasingly murky: US multinational businesses restated what they wanted was more access to China markets. US defense establishment, NSA and the Pentagon, and the Trump administration ‘hawks’—Lighthizer, John Bolton and Peter Navarro—retorted they wanted an end to strategic technology transfer to China—both from US companies doing business in China and from China companies purchasing or partnering with American companies in the US.

It appeared what Trump himself wanted anything was something to exaggerate and brag about to his domestic political base emphasizing nationalist themes—to keep his popular ratings growing, to ensure Republican retention of seats in Congress in the November elections, and to whip up his base.

So what was the real US priority? Whose trade war was it? The neocons and China hawks aligned with the US military-industrial complex? Midwest agribusiness and manufacturing interests? Or US finance capital wanting to escalate its penetration of China markets?

However, by mid-April it was all still talk, with tariffs actions on paper, and not yet implemented. The next step would be defining the announced tariffs in detail. Announcing tariffs was only like waving a gun, to use a metaphor. Defining the tariffs was like loading a gun, putting the ‘safety’ lock on, but not yet pulling the trigger. Tariff implementation dates were when the shoot-out would really begin.

As of mid-April the negotiations by trade representatives continued in the background, while US capitalists in the Business Roundtable and other prime corporate organizations added their input to the public commentary process that was scheduled to continue in the US until May 22.

US Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, went to Beijing in the weeks prior to May 22. He returned declaring there was an agreement. Mnuchin kicked Peter Navarro, one of the hawks, from the US trade team. The China hawks and military industrial complex immediately responded, with help of their friends in Congress. They went after China’s ZTE corporation doing business in the US, charging it with technology espionage and transfer. The tech faction on the US trade team took over from Mnuchin. Navarro was put back. Any tentative deal was scuttled.

What happened in the subsequent six months from June to November 2018 was a steady escalation of threats, and subsequent actions, by Trump to raise tariffs, while he simultaneously kept saying his relationship with China president Xi was great and he expected a trade deal at some point: His response to China’s $50 billion tariff announcement—the counter to Trump’s $100 billion more tariffs—was to publicly declare the US should consider an additional $100 billion in tariffs. The additional $100 billion were implemented thereafter.

China again responded tit-for-tat, as its Commerce Ministry spokesman, Gao Feng, declared it would not hesitate to put in place ‘detailed countermeasures’ that didn’t ‘exclude any options’. And, in the most ominous comment to date, it was made clear that should Trump impose the additional $100 billion, ‘China would not negotiate’! And as China Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, following up Gao Feng, indicated in an official news briefing, “The United States with one hand wields the threat of sanctions, and at the same time says they are willing to talk. I’m not sure who the United States is putting on this act for”…Under the current circumstances, both sides even more cannot have talks on these issues”.

Trump’s $150 billion in tariffs on China was played to his domestic political base, in the weeks prior to the November midterm US elections, as evidence of his tough policy of US economic nationalism. Trump further announced reaching an agreement with Mexico and Canada replacing the NAFTA free trade deal—exaggerating and spinning the new terms and conditions as major improvements while, in fact, the details were token much like the prior changes to the US-South Korean free trade agreement. No new tariffs were implemented on Mexican goods imports to the US.

Trump tried desperately to get the Chinese to return to the negotiating table during the months immediately preceding the US elections. However, China refused to be ‘played’ like Mexico and Canada for Trump’s election objectives and refused to return.

Trump threatened to raise tariffs on the second $100 billion implemented, from 10% to 25% and threatened another 25% on an additional $200 billion in China imports. Still no China agreement to negotiate.

By the early fall 2018 it was clear that the China hawks—Lighthizer, the military-industrial complex-the Pentagon & Co.—were in control of Trump trade policy. Regardless of China concessions on reducing the trade deficit or granting 51% access to its markets, their primary demand was slowing (or ideally subverting) China technology develop—stopping tech transfer in China and elsewhere in the US, as well as among US allies. The side-lining of Mnuchin over the summer, the restoration of Navarro to the trade team, and the adding of notorious anti-China hawk, John Bolton, all strengthened the tech development faction, led by Lighthizer, on the US trade team. They were in effect in control as the US midterm elections approached.

In the run-up to the US elections it was also clear Trump was focused on his domestic political base, repeatedly tweeting his ultra- economic nationalist rhetoric. Trump’s nationalist rhetoric also contributed to preventing the relaunch of trade negotiations with China. Part of this threatening rhetoric included Trump public statements that he would implement a third round of $200 billion more 25% tariffs by January 1, 2019 on China. In that environment of escalating threats, anti-China hardliners clearly in control of US policy, and pending US elections, it was virtually impossible China would agree to negotiate.

Following the November US elections, a meeting was now possible. The G20 nations gathering in Buenos Aires scheduled for late November presented the opportunity. Intense maneuvering occurred between the anti-China technology hawks and the Mnuchin bankers-multinational corporations factions. Lighthizer released a new report criticizing China tech policy and appeared to have the upper hand and opposed a meeting between Trump and China president, Xi, at a side venue dinner in Buenos Aires. That reflected a new effort and breakthrough by the Mnuchin faction of big US banks, tech, and aerospace corporations. From mid-October through November the US stock markets began a precipitous fall, which would continue through December, and amount to the worst stock correction since 2008 and even 1931. That financial and the real slowing of the US housing, construction, and auto industries likely shifted Trump administration strategy. The momentum of negotiations strategy began to shift from the Ligthizer faction.

Elements of Trump Trade Strategy

Apart from the three main objectives of Trump China trade policy noted—i.e. China purchases of more US goods, opening markets to 51% ownership for banks and other US corporations, and the nextgen tech development issue—there are various additional objectives behind the strategy.

First, the steel-aluminum tariffs that launched the Trump trade offensive in March 2018 were a signal to US competitors that they should prepare to ‘come to the table’ and renegotiate current trade arrangements, since the US now plans to change the rules of the game again—just as Reagan and Nixon did before in the 1970s and 1980s. But once they ‘came to the table’, the changes in rules of the game with regard to trade relations with US allies did not result in a fundamental restructuring of the US-allies trade relations. The South Korean deal (see Part 1 of this article), the following revised NAFTA treaty, the suspension of negotiations on auto and other tariffs with Europe and Japan, plus the thousands of exemptions to steel and other tariffs allowed by the Trump administration to date all reveal that trade renegotiation with US allies is mostly for show. However, the effort throughout 2018 all made for good campaign speech ‘economic nationalist’ hyperbole in an election year.

Trump has been pursuing a ‘dual track’ trade offensive: a ‘softball’ approach to US allies and an increasingly hard line with China. However, by January 2019 it appears the China hardline track may also fall well short of the threats and hyperbole to date. Trump simply does not have the kind of leverage over China negotiations in 2018-19 that Reagan had over Japan in the 1980s and even Nixon had in the early 1970s with Europe.

A second development impacting Trump trade strategy has to do with the inevitable slowing of the US real economy in 2019-20. The floodgates of fiscal policy have been reopened in 2018 with Trump’s $4.5 trillion corporate and investor tax cuts, plus hundreds of billions $ more in defense and war spending hikes. Annual deficits of more than $1 trillion a year for another decade are now baked into the US budget. The deficits in turn have required the Federal Reserve US central bank to raise interest rates to fund those annual trillion dollar and more deficits and debt. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Trump tax cuts have not stimulated real US economic growth very much. Most of the $4.5 trillion business-investor tax cuts are going toward buying back corporate stock ($590 billion forecast 2018 by Goldman Sachs), paying out more dividends ($400 billion plus forecast), and financing record levels of merger & acquisition deals ($1.2 trillion in 2018)..

In short, rising interest rates, ineffective tax cuts not producing projected real investment and growth, and escalating annual deficits and debt will need a major expansion of US trade exports to offset the rate hikes, deficits, and inevitable slowing US economy by late 2019. Trump needs desperately to get an agreement with China, to avert a trade war, and boost trade as the US economy slows.

Third, Trump trade policy comes as global trade has been slowing. Global commodity prices are in retreat once again. 2017’s much hyped ‘synchronized’ global recovery is falling apart—in Europe, Japan and key emerging market economies as well. Another recession is coming, possibly as early as late 2019 and certainly no later than 2020. So US trade policy is shifting, attempting to ensure that US business interests retain their share of what will likely be a slower growing (or even declining) world trade pie. Trump and US business are repositioning before the global cycle next turns down.

US domestic and global economic objectives are not the only forces influencing Trump’s trade policy. There are just as important US political objectives behind it as well.

The 2018 tariff announcements represent Trump’s leap into his 2020 re-election campaign, a return to intense nationalist themes, and a move to mobilize his domestic political base once again around nationalist appeals. Electoral politics are also in play here, in other words. The steel and aluminum tariffs were announced within 48 hours of Trump’s speaking to the ‘America First’ coalition of ultra-conservative and aggressive capitalist interest groups that were meeting in Washington the same week of the steel-aluminum tariff announcements. The ‘American Firsters’ promised to raise $100 million for his re-election campaign; Trump rewarded them within hours of their meeting and financial commitment to his campaign with his latest bombast on trade. Escalating threats and implementing tariffs on China in 2018 also cannot be separated from Trump efforts to influence the outcomes of the 2018 November midterm elections. Trade policy is about Trump re-election strategy as much as anything else—including trade deficits, market access, and tech transfer.

Less obvious perhaps is Trump’s leveraging of trade policy and nationalist themes as a way to agitate and mobilize his base, in preparation to counter the Mueller investigation once it’s concluded. As a possible Mueller indictment of Trump approaches, Trump has been clearly preparing his base. He is also cleaning house within his administration, surrounding himself with like-minded aggressive conservatives, former Neocons, and various sycophants—in anticipation of the ‘street fight’ he’s preparing for with the traditional liberal elite in the US once he (or his Justice Dept. Secretary) creates a political firestorm by firing Mueller.

What’s Next for US-China Trade?

What Trump is doing is what US capitalists periodically have done throughout the post-1945 period: i.e. change rules of the game in order to ensure US corporate interests are once again firmly in the drivers’ seat of the global economy for at least another decade and dto ensure US global political hegemony remains unchallenged. Nixon did it in 1971-73 targeting European challengers. Reagan did it in 1985 targeting Japan. Now Trump is replaying a similar scenario, targeting China. But China may prove a more difficult adversary for the US in trade negotiations. The US is relatively weaker today than it was in 1971 and 1985; moreover, China is in a far stronger position today relative to the US than were Europe and Japan earlier.

China is not as economically or politically dependent on the US in 2018 as was Japan in 1985. Nor as fragmented and decentralized as was Europe in 1971. Both Japan and Europe were also politically dependent on the US for their military defense at the time. China today is none of the above. Thus the US lacks important levers in negotiations with China it formerly had with Europe and Japan. Not only is China not economically or politically as dependent, but Trump’s initial $150 billion of US tariffs levied on China represents only 2.4% of all China trade with the world. It will therefore take more than US tariffs, even the $400+ billion of Trump’s total threatened tariffs on China, to get China to capitulate on trade as Japan did in 1985—a capitulation that eventually wrecked Japan’s economy and led in part to Japan’s 1991 financial implosion as a consequence.

And there’s the matter of North Korea. If the US expects China’s ‘help’ in getting North Korea to the negotiating table and de-nuclearizing the regime, it certainly won’t get it by provoking a trade war with China.

China has notable cards to play in its economic deck. For one thing, it could significantly slow its purchases of US Treasury bonds. That would require the US central bank to raise rates even further to entice other sources to buy the bonds China would have. That will pressure US interest rates to rise even further, and slow the US economy even more so than otherwise. China could also reverse its policy of keeping the value of its currency, the Yuan, high. A downward drift of the Yuan would raise the value of the dollar and thus make US exports less competitive. It could impose more rules on US corporations in China, give import licenses to European or other competitors, hold up mergers and acquisitions worldwide involving US corporations.

Another response by China might be to raise the requirements of technology transfer for US corporations located in China. There’s a long term strategic race between China and the US over who’ll come to dominate the new technologies—especially Artificial Intelligence, 5G wireless, and cyber security tech. China files about the same number of patents as the US every year, with Germany third and the rest of the world well behind. Who files the most AI, 5G and other patents may prove the winner in future global economic power. AI, 5G, cyber security are the technology that will ensure military dominance for years to come. The US sees China as its biggest threat in this sphere. The US wants to prevent China from capturing these critically strategic technologies. Trump China trade policy is thus inseparable from a US policy of launching a new military Cold War with China.

The outcome of the Trump-Xi Buenos Aires meeting in late November 2018 was an agreement by Trump to suspend raising tariffs on the second $100 billion, from current 10% to 25%, and in addition to impose an additional 25% on the remaining $267 billion of China goods—all by January 1, 2019. Instead it was agreed to continue negotiating again for another 90 days, until March 2. In return, China agreed in Buenos Aires to what it had already ‘put on the table’ during 2018: to open its markets to 51% foreign ownership and buy more US farm products.

Mid-level US-China trade delegations met in Beijing and began negotiations once again. By mid-January China clarified and added further concessions: It publicly declared it would purchase a $1 trillion more in US products over the course of the next six years. That’s apparently in addition to the already several hundred billions of dollars annually it purchases in US goods and services. It began buying US soybeans again, conceded to buy for the first time US GMO farm products, and to increase its purchase of US energy. It announced lower tariffs on US car imports, began awarding companies 51% ownership officially and scheduled to pass a new foreign investment law by January 29. It also has reportedly amended its laws to ban enforced tech transfer in China.

Despite China’s major concessions to date, the Lighthizer-Hawks-Military Industrial Complex faction has continued to push its hard line. With friends in Congress, the US has attacked the China corporation, Huawei, in an escalation greater than the prior attack on China’s ZTE corporation. It has even gotten US allies in Europe and Canada to initiate bans on Huawei as well. The US ally, Canada, arrested Huawei’s co-chairperson, while in Canada and is holding her as a common criminal. This has provoked counter-arrests of Canadians in China in return. The Huawei events likely represent attempts by US trade hardliners to scuttle again any potential agreement between the US and China by March 2. The fighting within the US trade factions also continues. US Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin, on January 17, 2019 publicly floated the proposal to lift all US tariffs on China as a concession in the negotiations. This has enraged the Lighthizer-Military faction in the US. The outcome is still uncertain. Lighthizer-Navarro still technically lead the US negotiations and will be the lead negotiators with China’s Vice-Premier for trade, Liu He, who is scheduled to come to Washington on January 30 to begin high level discussions. Whether Mnuchin and US big corporations and bankers can prevail with Trump and get a deal, or whether the Lighthizer faction can convince Trump the tech issue concessions by China are not sufficient for a deal, remains to be determined.

Which faction succeeds influencing Trump will determine the outcome. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and interface between the two factions, may play a decisive role as well. It is highly unlikely a deal will be struck January 30 or soon after. The key will be how far China is willing to go with tech concessions. And whether the wording will satisfy the Lighthizer anti-China hawks who want a Cold War with China. Thus US military policy may be the deciding factor in any US-China trade deal. Negotiations will almost certainly continue up to the March 2, 2019 deadline. They may even be extended. Much will depend on the condition of the US and China economies in the coming months (and the US stock markets which Trump absurdly sees as the key indicator of US economic health).

This writer has predicted, and continues to predict, that a trade deal will be reached between the two, given that the US (and China) and global economies will continue over the long run to slow, and a global recession is on the horizon by 2020 and perhaps earlier by late 2019. The anti-China factor, Lighthizer &Co., do not want a trade deal. They want trade as an issue that pushes US and China toward a new Cold War. Whether US bankers and big business can demand the US and Trump accept China’s significant economic concessions will determine the outcome as well. A final deal is in no way assured, however, given Trump’s instability and the fact he has surrounded himself with neocon advisors and sycophant, lightweight cabinet replacements. In the end they may prevail and get their China-US Cold War.

Dr. Jack Rasmus
November 19, 2019
Dr. Rasmus is author of the book, ‘Central Bankers at the End of Their Ropes: Monetary Policy and the Coming Depression, Clarity Press, August 2017, and the forthcoming ‘The Scourge of Neoliberalism: US Policy from Reagan to Trump’, also by Clarity Press, 2019. He blogs at jackrasmus.com and hosts the weekly radio show, Alternative Visions, on the Progressive Radio Network. His twitter handle is @drjackrasmus.

The past three days US and China negotiators have met in Beijing to try one last time before a true trade war erupts between them in March 2019. Higher level trade negotiators will follow up in Washington in coming weeks. This writer was asked to write a comprehensive article on the Trump trade ‘war’ in general, and specifically in relation to China. That article is appearing in the latest edition of the World Review of Political Economy, published and edited in Beijing. It’s entitled ‘Trump’s Deja Vu China Trade War’. What follows is the first part of that article, which addresses events from the initiation of Trump’s trade offensives in March 2018. Part 2 will be posted as well subsequently. Both parts trace US trade policy evolution under Trump in 2018, compared with similar US trade offensives under Nixon in the 1970s targeting Europe and Reagan in the 1980s targeting Japan. The historical parallels are interesting, and situate US trade policy as an important element in the evolution of US Neoliberalism.

The two part article is perhaps somewhat lengthy for posting on a blog, but is offered here nonetheless for interested readers, given the timeliness of current trade negotiations underway between US and China, now coming to a head.

PART 1: TRUMP’s DEJA VU CHINA TRADE WAR

“Trade War! Trade War! When Trump pre-announced on March 2 his plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, the mainstream press immediately began hyping the line that trade war was looming on the horizon. Panicking, investors ran like lemmings over the stock market cliff after the steel tariff announcement; US allies huffed and puffed, promising tit-for-tat tariff responses on US agricultural goods or commercial aircraft; Trump’s traditional elite advisors, like Gary Cohn, former CEO of Goldman Sachs investment bank and head of Trump’s economic council, resigned later that week—no doubt in part due to frustration and disagreement over Trump’s unilaterally announced tariff.

The ‘Stalking Horse’: Steel-Aluminum Tariffs

At week’s end, on March 8, 2018, Trump proposed to implement steel and aluminum tariffs universally, across the board, affecting all importers to the US.: 25% tariffs on steel imports and 10% on Aluminum. The big 5 US steel importers are Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, and Germany—collectively responsible for $15 billion a year in steel imports. Canada, Russia and the United Arab Emirates are the major aluminum importers. (Worth noting, for 2017 steel imports China is well down the pack, tenth or eleventh on the list, contributing only 2.2% of US steel, importing in the millions of dollars annually—not billion—and mostly semi-finished steel goods used by US manufacturers for fabricating final goods produced in the US.) When announced on March 8, Trump argued there would be no countries exempted from the 25% tariffs on steel and 10% on aluminum.. That quickly changed.

By mid-March, Canada and Mexico were temporarily exempted from the tariffs, even though they were among the top four largest steel importers to the US, with Canada largest and Mexico fourth largest. Thereafter, Brazil (second largest steel importer), Germany, and others steel importers were exempted. And Canada, by far the largest aluminum importer to the US, accounting for 43% of US aluminum imports, was exempted as well.

South Korea, the third largest steel importer last year, was exempted from steel tariffs permanently, as it quickly renegotiated its 2012 free trade deal with the US. Moreover, no other significant tariffs were imposed on South Korea as part of the bilateral treaty revisions. What the US got in the quickly renegotiated US-South Korea free trade deal, was more access for US auto makers into Korea’s auto markets. And quotas on Korean truck imports into the US. Korean auto companies, Kia and Hyundai, had already made significant inroads to the US auto market. US auto makers have become dependent on US truck sales to stay afloat; they didn’t want Korean to challenge them in the truck market as well. Except for these auto agreements, there were no major tariffs or other obstructions to South Korea imports to the US. Not surprising, the South Koreans were ecstatic they got off so easily in the negotiations. Clearly, the US-South Korea deal had nothing to do with Steel or Aluminum. If anything, it was a token adjustment of US-Korea auto trade and little more.

So if the Korean deal was a ‘big nothing’ trade renegotiation, and if virtually all the US major steel and aluminum importers have been exempted worldwide, what’s Trump’s new trade policy aggression all about? US steel and aluminum imports combined make up only $47 billion—a fraction of total US imports of $2.36 trillion in 2017.
Was the steel-aluminum tariffs announcement just another example of Trump bombast, launched via tweets from the second story of the White House at 3am, to be followed by a quick retreat? Was the South Korean agreement a template and a big ‘softball’ for later negotiations with US trade allies—Mexico, Canada, Europe? Was it Trump shooting off his mouth and then retreating following pressure from his advisors and US business interests? Was the tariff announcement a ‘stalking horse’ for something bigger? Perhaps the tariffs were a cover for domestic political objectives—aimed either at agitating and mobilizing Trump’s political base in ‘red state’ America in preparation for midterm US elections in November 2018 or even a Trump decision to fire special investigator counsel Mueller in coming weeks? Playing the ‘economic nationalist’ card and mobilizing his base, by initiating new tariffs and talking of a ‘trade war’, would serve both Trump domestic political objectives.

For polls show Trump’s steel-aluminum tariffs announcement played well in the Midwest, the great plains states and the South; and especially in those steel and mining towns of Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota—i.e. those key swing states that gave him the narrow margin of victory in the 2016 elections! Even if he quickly shelved the tariffs, the media hype sent the message Trump wanted to his base: he was doing something about the decades-long loss of steel and mining jobs in those regions since the 1980s. In short, how much of the steel-aluminum tariffs were for domestic political consumption and how much not?

That question applies as well to the subsequent trade actions by the Trump administration. By the end of March, given all the exemptions, it became clear the real target of Trump’s trade offensive was China and not the rest of US allies.

A closer look at Trump administration statements since March 2018 reveals that Trump’s anti-China trade offensive has had less to do with China general imports to the US and more about US next generation technology transfer by US corporations to China. Next gen technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), G5 wireless networks, and similar cyber-security and militarily strategic tech now in development.

As Trump’s new chair of his Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, put it in March, “There’s no trade war. All we’re trying to do is protect US technology”. Kudlow added a month later, in early April, “Sometimes you have to use tariffs to bring countries to their senses”. Tariffs are the tactic, not the strategic policy objective. And if trade deficits are not the primiary issue, and tariffs are only the tactic, then what is the strategic objective? It’s technology transfer and domestic politics. Perhaps the US defense sector, in particular the NSA and Trump’s military generals-heavy administration, are playing a greater role in the US-China trade war in the background than is thus far noted by the media. And not enough attention is being given to the role of domestic political events as well.

Put another way, at the level of appearance, the US trade deficit and China imports to the US may be the target for purposes of public opinion. But behind the appearance, it’s more likely that US domestic politics plus US long term military planning are the two more important drivers behind Trump’s emerging trade war. All of Trump’s tariffs and subsequent trade measures are being invoked based on an obscure ‘national security’ clause in US trade legislation. And China is increasingly the target, as tariffs and other measures are suspended and reduced for US trading partners—with the exception of China—as the US pursues a soft trade ‘offensive’ against all its other trading partners. As Trump himself tweeted when the initial steel and aluminum tariffs were announced on March 8, “I have a feeling we’re going to make a deal on Nafta. If we do, there won’t be any tariffs on Canada and there won’t be any on Mexico”.

Even with China, it’s not so much China imports that the US is most concerned about. It’s China’s challenge to US technology development and leadership and the implications of that challenge for US security, defense armament, and US continued dominance in war making capabilities that’s behind even the US-China trade dispute. That technology objective, plus the convenient use of trade in general, and China trade in particular for Trump’s domestic political purposes, are together the real objectives of US trade policy.

The US Plan to Target China

The US focus on China and technology transfer issues as the primary objective was revealed months ago. The US anti-China trade offensive was initiated in 2017 and has been in development for at least a year. The opening of a trade war with China did not begin with some impulsive Trump tweets in March 2018. It has been in the works since at least last August 2017.

In August 2017 Trump formally gave the US Office of Trade (OUST) the task of identifying how China was transferring US technology, “undermining US companies’ control over their technology in China”, as well as seeking to do so by acquiring US companies in the US. On August 18, 2017, the OUST laid out in writing four charges in a formal investigation it was undertaking, accusing China of actions designed to “obtain cutting edge in IP (intellectual property) and generate technology transfer”. All four charges were intensely technology transfer related.

That August 2017 scope of investigation document was then reproduced verbatim on March 22, 2018, with the expected findings and recommendations, in the 58 page 2nd OUST report of March 22, 2018 that publicly launched Trump’s trade offensive against China. China was found ‘guilty’ of aggressively seeking technology transfer at the expense of US corporations, both in China and the US. All four charges of August 2017 were found to have been violated by China.

Based on the OUST report of March 22, 2018, and the report’s recommendations (and its list of 1300 target products),Trump announced plans to impose $50 billion in tariffs on 1300 China general imports, ranging from chemicals to jet parts, industrial equipment, machinery, communication satellites, aircraft parts, medical equipment, trucks, and even helicopters, nuclear equipment, rifles, guns and artillery.. Trump may have appeared in March 2018 to have shifted gears in his trade policy—from a general steel-aluminum tariffs focus to a focus targeting China trade— but China has been the planned primary target.

In other words, China and the specific 1300 tariffs were the target at least from August 2017, and likely in internal planning when Trump first took office in January 2017. Trump just set it all in motion on March 23, 2018. The China trade war was set in motion a year earlier. The prime objective for the US has always been stopping China technology transfer. The OUST list of 1300 tariffs was, and remains, a ‘bargaining chip’ to exchange for what Trump and the US really wants from China: reducing US technology transfer.

A somewhat curious event in the preparation for targeting China occurred only days before the March 23, 2018 OUST report release, when Trump himself tweeted he’d like to see 1$ billion in tariffs on China. How then did the official policy become $50 billion after March 23, 2018? Was Trump initially out of the loop of US elite China trade policy in development? Did the China-US trade war really originate with Trump? Was it being planned by others, with Trump brought on board after seeing the domestic political possibilities for himself? One can only speculate. Nevertheless, on March 23, 2018 the targeting of China-US trade became official Trump policy.

The Phony US Trade War

The Trump administration has been pursuing a ‘dual track’ trade offensive. The soft track targets US allies in Europe, Americas, and select Asian economies; the China hard track is rooted in US military-defense planning. Both serve Trump’s domestic political objectives. The China trade war is real; the trade war with US allies is phony, by which is meant it is only seeks token adjustments to trade relations which Trump intends to hype for domestic political consumption.

That China and technology are the primary objective in Trump’s true trade war does not mean that Trump will not continue to try to renegotiate bilaterally with other US allies to reduce the US’s growing trade deficits worldwide. China-USA total trade in 2017 amounted to $656 billion. But USA-Canada and USA-Mexico total trade was $568 billion and $588 billion, respectively; or $1.16 trillion. That means total NAFTA trade is nearly double total trade of US with China.

Nonetheless, NAFTA trade negotiations, as well as trade renegotiations with South Korea, Europe and Japan have, and will, result in minor adjustments and little reduction in the US overall trade deficit. The South Korea-US deal of 2018 is the template. As in the recent South Korean deal, Trump achieved only token concessions from NAFTA partners—mostly minor changes in auto quotas and agriculture. He then exaggerated and hyped the results to his domestic political base, describing it as some significant big achievement. Like the South Korea deal, however, the NAFTA 2.0 wasn’t.

This ‘dual’ track strategy seems to be working for Trump. Since announcements of tariffs and trade measures beginning in early March, his public opinion approval ratings have risen, according to a consensus of pollsters. And polls taken in his ‘red state’ heartland base show support for his tariff actions, and even if it has meant an initial loss of jobs and business revenues.

Trump’s DejaVu Trade War in Historical Perspective

Periodically, US corporate interests and policy makers launch a major restructuring of US trade relations. This is usually when they deem it necessary to rearrange the rules of the game with trade when US interests are being challenged or when the global economy is weakening and they consider it necessary to protect the US share of a slowing global trade pie.

In 1971 such a restructuring was undertaken by then President Richard Nixon. The US economy had been experiencing a rising rate of inflation in the late 1960s as a result of US excess spending on Vietnam war, the cold war arms race with the USSR, the race to the moon, and expanding social programs associated with the so-called Great Society. Nixon introduced what he called his ‘New Economic Program’ in August 1971.

At the center of Nixon’s NEP was the US abandonment of the 1944 global ‘Bretton Woods’ international monetary system that the US itself had set up at war’s end to ensure its dominance of the new world order in currency, trade flows, and US foreign direct investment worldwide. Under that system the US dollar was pegged to gold at $35 an ounce. Other countries could sell their accumulated dollars in exchange for US gold. Because US inflation was accelerating in the 1960s it was in effect making US goods less competitive. European economies did not want to hold devaluating dollars and were exchanging them for gold. Nixon decided he did not want to sell US gold any longer, even though required under the Bretton Woods systems to do so. So he simply abandoned the 1944 system the US had established. He unilaterally and arbitrarily changed the rules of the game to suit US interests. Immediately the dollar began to devalue, making US businesses more competitive with their European rivals. European currencies rose higher, making them less competitive. To supplement the move, Nixon also imposed tariffs on European imports to the US, while introducing subsidies and tax cuts for US businesses exporting US products. By 1973 the consequences were institutionalized in the so-called Smithsonian Agreement. The US would no longer sell gold. Currency exchange rates would henceforth be stabilized (poorly) by the US and other central banks in Europe buying and selling of currencies to keep them within a range of the dollar. But the 15%-20% dollar devaluation from 1971-73 would remain in place.

The problem of declining US trade competitiveness was the result of US policies. But Nixon’s solution was not to correct US policy errors. Rather it was to make the Europeans correct the problem at their expense by reducing their relative share of global trade. The end of Bretton Woods also meant that central banks would (theoretically) regulate currency exchange rates between countries. In effect this meant that the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, would function as the dominant central bank and the others would have to respond to its initiatives on global interest rate determination. In short, the global trading system was restructured by the US.

A similar development occurred in 1985 under Ronald Reagan. The US experienced double digit inflation in the early 1980s. It then raised domestic interest rates to 18% and began in addition to run $300 billion a year federal budget deficits. This resulted in US businesses raising prices in order to cover the extraordinary rise in rates and costs of borrowing. US products lost their competitiveness to Japanese businesses, which began to import goods to the US at a growing rate. US policies did not bring down rates or inflation significantly by 1985. So the US instead forced Japan to the negotiating table to revise the terms of trade. Japan was forced to inflate its own economy to generate more inflation, to raise the price of their goods and erase their export competitiveness. Once again, a problem caused in the US by US policy was ‘resolved’ by requiring the burden of the resolution to be carried by the trade partner, Japan. The agreement between the US and Japan on trade in 1985 was called the ‘Plaza Accords’. A similar, though less intense, renegotiation with Europe, reached in Paris (Louvre agreements) followed. Once again, when it suited US interests, when challenged by a significant capitalist competitor, the US simply changed the rules of the game.

It is worth also noting that both these trade offensives—Nixon’s and Reagan’s— were launched in the wake of significant expansionary tax cutting and government war spending fiscal policies that produced growing US budget deficits for the US. The subsequent trade offensives were thus designed to expand US exports to supplement domestic US fiscal over-stimulus policies at the time. Nixon’s initiative followed the recession of 1970-71 and his obsession to over-stimulate the US economy by every means to ensure his re-election in 1972. It did, but it simultaneously wrecked the US economy for the remainder of the decade, resulting in domestic stagflation, collapse of real investment, downward pressure on corporate profits and a call from business interests for a fundamental reorientation of US economic policy that would eventually be known as ‘neoliberalism’ and would last until the crisis of 2008-09.

Reagan’s trade offensive followed the recession of 1981-82 and the failure of US policy to address the US’s ballooning budget deficits after 1981 (from tax cuts and spending hikes) and the growing trade deficits as the US dollar rose steadily in the first half of the decade.
The Nixon policy resulted in financial instability in 1973 and failure of several large banks, followed by the worse recession to date in 1973-75 and stagnation for the rest of the decade. Reagan’s policy resulted in even more financial instability in the crash of stock and junk bond markets and housing markets in the latter half of the 1980s, followed by the recession of 1990-91. Europe and Japan fared no better after 1985, with general banking crises in northern Europe and Japan in the early 1990s that were at least in part due to the Plaza and Louvre trade agreements.

A similar pattern is once again emerging under Trump’s trade offensive targeting China. Trump’s current trade offensive follows massive multi-trillion dollar US business-investor tax cutting, which amounted, at minimum, to $4 trillion to businesses, investors, and wealthiest 1% households as result of legislation signed January 2018. Trump’s $4 trillion in tax cuts was quickly followed in March 2018 by a $300 billion two year, 2018-2020, increase in net additional US government spending, mostly defense oriented. By most estimates, trillion dollar a year annual US budget deficits are now on the horizon for another decade.

To pay for the deficits the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, is now having to raise interest rates rapidly and sell record more US Treasury bonds and securities to raise funds to cover the US trillion dollar deficits ahead. However, that central bank policy has had a dampening effect on US economic growth and has led to a significant financial market contraction by year end 2018 that could destabilize growth even further in 2019. The Trump administration is hoping that the fiscal stimulus, supplemented with the benefits of more exports as result of its trade renegotiations, will be able to offset the economic slowdown generated by rising US central bank interest rates.

But this rearranging of fiscal, monetary and trade policies will almost certainly not prove successful—just as similar policy trade offs under Reagan and Nixon ultimately failed as well. The Trump massive business-investor tax cuts have thus far barely ‘trickled’ into the real economy. Most of the tax cuts will be diverted by companies to buying back their stock, paying out dividends to shareholders, used for acquiring competitors (Mergers & Acquisitions), or for paying down corporate debt—just as were US corporate profits diverted and used, from 2009 through 2016 in the US. Trump’s $100 billion a year defense spending will also have less economic stimulus effect—compared to the 1980s and 1970s—since defense spending has become high cost/low job creation in content.

Finally, the trade offensive against China will prove far more difficult for Trump to pull off than Reagan’s trade policies targeting Japan or Nixon’s targeting Europe. The same relationship of forces and relative power simply does not exist for the US today, as it once did in the 1970s and 1980s.

The basis for Trump’s China trade offensive is the 1974 US Trade act, section 301. Invoking it worked against Japan. It forced Japan to reduce its auto exports and build auto plants in the US. It also encouraged Japan to shift from real goods production to financial asset speculation, which led to its crash in 1990-91. But it will prove less effective against China. Some of China’s likely counter-measures and responses have already begun to appear. Among the possibilities are politically targeted tariffs on US exports, devaluing its currency, slowing its purchases of US Treasury bonds, delaying the opening of its financial markets to US banks and investors, launching a nationwide ‘boycott America’ goods program, holding up its approval on global agreements on corporate mergers, and so on.

However, the clearly slowing global economy that became increasingly apparent in the closing months of 2018—including growth both in China and the US—have imposed pressure on both economies to come to a deal in 2019. China’s financial markets have begun contracting as well; its main Shanghai market down nearly 30%. Similarly, the major US markets experienced their worst decline in less than two months, November-December, since 1931. Both real economies, and markets, will slow and decline in 2019, although not without periods of ‘recovery’. Concurrently, Europe’s economy is slowing rapidly, including key economies like Germany, France, and Italy—with a UK Brexit shock also on the horizon. Japan and South Korea, and various emerging market economies also have begun their slide. So economic conditions in 2019 will likely force a China-US trade deal by mid-year 2019.

For what this tentative and likely deal will look like in terms and conditions, Part II of this article follows, addressing the real US-China ‘trade war’—over next generation technology like Artificial Intelligence, 5G wireless, and Cybersecurity. These are not only the next sources of new industries that will drive economic growth for the coming decades, but also the crux of which country dominates militarily in the period ahead. The US and China have been drifting toward a real trade war, are on the brink, but not there yet. That may change in 2019. Should negotiations break down, it will be over technology and not tariffs, trade deficit, or the US demand for more US banker and multinational corporation ‘access’ (read: 51% or more ownership) to China markets. Odds are in favor, however, of a settlement and agreement. Economic conditions are driving both to that conclusion. How the parties structure and publicize any agreement on technology, if they do, will be the key. Most likely, both will agree to generalities and future actions, declare themselves the winner, and move on–with US corporations, bankers, and agribusiness getting their sales and access to China markets. And China buying time to continue its technology policy and development.

Dr. Jack Rasmus
January 9, 2019