The U.S.-China trade war has gone on long enough to start showing some serious damage, with more to come unless the two leading economies in the world step back from the brink.
The economists at Moody’s issued a stark warning earlier this week, in a report bluntly titled “Trade War Chicken: The Tariffs and the Damage Done.” The trade war, they said, “has entered a dangerous new phase” and has “already done meaningful economic damage to the U.S. and global economies. The two countries have now imposed duties on more than half of their trade in goods, with more tariffs due by the end of the year.
Moody’s put U.S. cumulative losses at 300,000 jobs and a 0.3% drop in gross domestic product. For context, that pretty much wipes out the projected gains of the USMCA agreement that President Donald Trump considers one of his chief accomplishments. Earlier this year the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated gains from the NAFTA replacement at a 0.35% increase in GDP and 176,000 jobs over six years.
It’s fair to note that Trump didn’t start this fight. China has been rogue on trade for years, and has long needed reining in. But, as the Star Tribune Editorial Board has noted before, the more effective route might have been — and still may be — to build a coalition of other nations that not only could present a unified front to China but also possibly prevent other countries such as Brazil from exploiting the situation. While Minnesota farmers watch their soybeans rot in the fields, countries like Brazil have moved into trade routes that may be hard to win back.
The numbers in Minnesota reflect the growing toll. A recent report on tariff impacts by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development shows that Minnesota exports fell 4% in the second quarter of 2019. That was even faster than the national drop of 3%. Compare that with the same period in 2018, when overall exports were up a robust 15%, outstripping the national average of 11%. Minnesota exports to China in that period rose 27%.
In its report on export countermeasures, DEED projects that $2.2 billion of state exports could be affected by tariffs, based on 2018 data. The vast majority of that — 94% — is retaliatory measures from China. Another 6% is from the European Union, because Trump has taken action against it as well.
Moody’s warns that a prolonged stalemate or escalation in the trade war could snuff out hundreds of thousands more American jobs and plunge the country into deep recession, even triggering a global slowdown. That assumes a scenario in which all U.S.-China trade tariffs rise to 30% and nontariff barriers are imposed, due to happen by the end of this year.
Perhaps China has been poring over similar troubling projections. Leaders there recently offered a goodwill gesture in advance of a new round of talks, lifting a small amount of tariffs. That prompted the U.S. to make a similar, small offer. In perhaps the brightest spot yet in the prolonged stalemate, China on Friday said it would exempt U.S. soybean, pork and other agricultural imports from further tariffs, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. That could provide some important relief, especially to Minnesota soybean farmers who have born some of the brunt in the standoff.
This is a delicate moment as the two nations cautiously edge their way back to the negotiating table. Ambitions for the broad deal Trump hoped for may need scaling back for now in favor of a narrower agreement that allows both sides a face-saving way out. The alternative, a possible worldwide recession and damage across the U.S. economy, is too great a gamble.