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Rabobank’s Senior Asia-Pacific Strategist, Michael Every writes about why we stand on the edge of a potential global trade war, which many see as irrational.
Michel Every argues that financial markets are not pricing for the possibility of a global trade partly because the irrationality seems to reduce the probability of this outcome. However, there are multiple interpretations of what ‘rational’ means for all actors involved.
One can make the argument the US and China are both acting rationally, while the basic assumptions that our global system is rational may themselves be irrational!
On that basis, the risks of trade wars may be higher than markets currently suggest. To read this extremely informative article please click here to read more.

Published in: Business
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  1. 1. Marketing communication 23 April 2018 RaboResearch Global Economics & Markets Michael Every Senior Asia-Pacific Strategist +852 2103 2612 (Ir)rational Global trade, markets, politics, and tensions Summary  We stand on the edge of a potential damaging global trade war, which many see as irrational  Indeed, markets are not pricing for it, partly because the irrationality seems to reduce the probability of this outcome  However, there are multiple interpretations of what ‘rational’ means for all actors involved  One can make the argument that the US and China are both acting rationally, while assumptions that our global system is rational may themselves be irrational!  On that basis, the risks of trade wars may be higher than markets currently suggest Risk on or off? As we all know, we stand on the edge of a potential global trade war. The US has already placed 25% tariffs on steel and 10% on aluminium; this could be on just a few countries, or it could yet end up being on many, including on the EU – in which case Europe has promised tit-for-tat tariff retaliation in kind. The US has also proposed 25% tariffs on USD150bn of Chinese exports, as well as other market-access restrictions – an example of what that can lead to is the crippling of China’s ZTE conglomerate; China has already retaliated with USD3bn in tariffs, a 179% surcharge on US sorghum, and another USD50bn more in tariffs ‘locked and loaded’, including on soybeans, should the US proceed. At this stage we have warnings from central banks and the IMF that such a trade war would be extremely damaging: in its April World Economic Update, the IMF stated bluntly that while we are still in a “phoney war” for now on trade, with more posturing than action, “The multilateral rules- based trade system that evolved after WW2 and that nurtured unprecedented growth in the world economy needs strengthening. Instead, it is in danger of being torn apart.” Regular readers will of course know that this is a specific threat we presented in detail over a year ago in the special report The Great Game of Global Trade. Yet regardless of the IMF’s warning, financial markets have generally continued to trade as if this is not happening. Rather rash? One can of course argue that there is some logic to that: these kind of political events are very fast-moving, and seem to change daily, or even intra-daily; there is no clarity on the final outcome; and despite the evident ‘fat tail risk’, if other market participants prefer to look towards an optimistic outcome, taking a sharply contrary stance is an expensive, rash proposition. However, one cannot help suspect that part of the market’s complacency is that for many participants the concept of a trade war remains far-fetched. After all, they posit, such negative trade actions are economically irrational; nobody wins and everybody loses; supply chains are too integrated to allow for serious US-China trade frictions; voters won’t stand for it in the US; and China is too rational to allow it from its side. In that regard, for many it is hard to conceive that what we are hearing so far is not rhetoric rather than real risk. Regrettably, such thinking does not have a great track record on big shifts like this. True, it’s usually right day to day – but when it’s wrong, it’s very wrong. For example, recall the Brexit referendum, even if the final resolution to that issue remains unclear, and more positive outcomes were seen in at least half of the last four EU national elections. Moreover, history is also not on the side of economic rationality, which also needs to be considered,
  2. 2. 2/10 RaboResearch | (Ir)rational | 23-04-2018, 09:34 Please note the disclaimer at the end of this document. How do you explain WW1? Indeed, we have seen the argument that an integrated globalised economy cannot be “torn apart” before – and they were totally wrong. In November 1909, after nearly a century of generally laissez-faire free trade under Pax Britannica and the gold standard, British author Norman Angell published a book titled “The Great Illusion: a Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage”. In it Angell made the point that: “International finance has become so interdependent and so interwoven with trade and industry that the intangibility of an enemy's property extends to his trade. It results that political and military power can in reality do nothing for trade; the individual merchants and manufacturers of small nations, exercising no such power, compete successfully with those of the great.” In short, anything other than free trade and globalisation was seen as irrational, while increased trade offered large and small nations alike the perfect opportunity to grow their economies. On that basis there was no point in the UK being concerned about Germany, which was at that time using a state-led development model to shut out UK exports, rapidly industrialising, and building both a large army and a mighty navy to challenge long-time British maritime supremacy. Simply, Angell ridiculed the idea that such German actions represented “the growing need of an expanding population for a larger place in the world, a need which will find a realization in the conquest of English Colonies or trade, unless these are defended.” All they wanted was more trade, he felt. The Great Illusion obviously proved to be a hit with the public, with reprints required in April, June, and November 1910; January, April, May, July, and November 1911; and January, April, September, October, and November 1912. Yet ironically it was The Great Illusion itself that turned out to be the great illusion, not fears of a collapse in globalization. Whether it was economically or politically rational to start a World War, Germany did so in 1914 after the ‘trigger’ of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The rest, as they say, is history, and after a brief reprieve, things got infinitely worse from the 1930s on when Germany started talking about Lebensraum. In short, assumptions of economic rationality, or of the permanence of global architecture, can be dangerously wrong. Yet we still hear parallel arguments today about the benign future of our current phase of globalization. Or Cold War 2.0? Moreover, what do we even mean by ‘rational’? To underline this point, consider a recent statement from the pro-free trade Chief Economist of the China Beige Book, a US-funded initiative to provide more comprehensive cover on the Chinese economy than available from national statistics alone: “Those who predicted pro-market reform when Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party should hide their heads in embarrassment. Beijing now seeks to displace foreign firms in high-end manufacturing and technology. It aims to do this not through comparative advantage, but via subsidies and scale achieved in sealed-off home markets. Major American allies also see this as a crucial shift from China competing with developing economies to competing with developed economies. It was thought China would respect intellectual property more as it climbed the technology ladder. Instead, it has refined tools to coerce technology transfer or steal it outright. Beijing denies seeking a trade surplus, but trade balance with the United States would have caused a $200+ billion drop in foreign exchange reserves last year, which it could not sustain. If the great Chinese consumer boom ever comes, it will have to be filled by goods and services made in China. Quick, sharp changes in the relationship, as threatened by the Trump administration, would have costs for the US. Ideally, Washington would articulate a clear strategy and implement it over time, allowing both American companies and trade partners to adjust. Given the administration’s pattern to date, a well-telegraphed adjustment seems unlikely. But fast or slow, clear or chaotic, the US will not accept another decade of a much-larger China warping competition in its home market while demanding open markets overseas. It will not tolerate another decade of China mining the relationship for resources to seize technological leadership. There can’t even be misplaced faith that the next leader will be different, given Xi’s chairmanship-for-life. The economic relationship will shrink. We’re just arguing about timing.” Here we see a message from a US business group that an alternative version of economic rationality lies not in the US continuing to trade with China, but in confronting it, and even disengaging from it if necessary.
  3. 3. 3/10 RaboResearch | (Ir)rational | 23-04-2018, 09:34 Please note the disclaimer at the end of this document. Multi-dimensional rationality Those who expected China to represent the face of economic rationality might have been shocked by Beijing responding to the first US tariff proposal with an ultra- aggressive move targeting the most sensitive of products – US agricultural exports such as pork, sorghum, and soybeans. (On the latter, please see here for a take from our Agri Commodities Markets Research team.) That China would so quickly choose to escalate a trade spat into areas seen as sacrosanct because they would raise its food prices is jarring to assumptions that no state will ever take an action that harms its own self-interest. At the very least, we have been sent a powerful message that the last in a line of dominos may now be about to topple: Populists won’t win, that’s irrational; Populists won’t start trade wars, it’s irrational; Trade wars won’t involve food, it’s irrational. Perhaps one argument that explains China’s aggressive approach is that it wishes to scare the US away from embarking on its present path. That could be seen as rational - if very high risk. However, another approach to take is to recognise the charges against China laid out by the CBB have validity: that Beijing is not prepared to shift away from its rational, state-led, mercantilist economic model --one that’s learned from the US under Hamilton, pre-WW1 Germany, and post-WW2 Japan-- under US pressure. If so, China is indeed hunkering down for a more confrontational global trade environment going forwards. Moreover, having seen the US wave the tariff threat against it, would it be rational for China to assume its economic model is going to remain unchallenged in the future? That seems highly unlikely. Beijing is still hopeful it can win over the EU and others to its side vs. the US, though a recent quote from EU sources on the topic was that this: “…smacks of desperation because China also knows that the EU is not going to confront its biggest ally…China has been very effective at making the most of the free-trading rule book. I don't think anyone in the West is going to leave it to China to set new ones." Consequently, China must realise that even if Trump strikes a trade deal with it tomorrow, the trade issue can still return again in the future. In that case it would again be rational for China to initiate a strategic divergence/trade ‘Plan B’ as much as possible, as soon as possible. Let he who is without sin… There is another way to look at this “irrationality” too if we consider the trade positions the world’s top net exporters (China, Germany, and Japan) hold with the key net importer, the US, and with each-other. Japan runs only a moderate trade surplus of 0.5% of its USD4.8 trillion nominal GDP in 2017, equal to USD269bn. However, it runs a much larger surplus with the US (1.3%, or USD61bn), alongside a tiny deficit with Germany (-0.1%, USD5bn) and a much larger shortfall with China (-0.6%, USD32bn). As such, the world doesn’t have real cause to complain about Japan on the trade front, but US concern over its disproportionate bilateral deficit are real. Nonetheless, Japan’s overall surpluses have fallen markedly since the late 1980s, and it even ran trade deficits from 2011Q2 to 2015Q4, though it remained in surplus with the US during that period. By contrast, there is a misperception that China has shifted from exports to domestic GDP drivers, and in 2017Q4 it ran a trade surplus of ‘just’ 3.8% of GDP, lower than 8.8% in 2008Q4. Yet China’s total trade surplus was USD448bn in Figure 1: Japan is not such a problem Source: IMF DOTS Figure 2: China is! Note: The IMF records Japan and China both running deficits with each other due to the role of Hong Kong Source: IMF DOTS -6 -4 -2 0 2 4 6 Mar-60 Mar-70 Mar-80 Mar-90 Mar-00 Mar-10 Japantradebalancewith.....,% GDP World GE US CH -4 -2 0 2 4 6 8 10 Mar-92 Mar-97 Mar-02 Mar-07 Mar-12 Mar-17 Chinatradebalancewith....,%GDP World GE JP US
  4. 4. 4/10 RaboResearch | (Ir)rational | 23-04-2018, 09:34 Please note the disclaimer at the end of this document. 2017, more than double Japan’s. Moreover, 62% of that was with the US (USD279bn) even if it runs a small deficit with Germany of USD25bn). In short, China is still a huge trade issue for the US. Ironically, that’s why the US is of course in a position to pressure China on the trade front and can raise the stakes in terms of tariffs. Lastly, Germany. Berlin runs enormous trade surpluses (7.6% of GDP, USD282bn in 2017). The majority of that is within the Eurozone – which has created well-observed problems. Yet the German surplus with the US is also 2.0% of its GDP (USD75bn), which is notable. Thus Germany is a global source of US trade angst too. Of course, rationalists might summarize the top global net exporters’ trade surpluses with the US as a share of their own GDP (Figure 4) and not see any of them as a particular problem compared to the recent past. That’s one narrative. Figure 4: Nothing to see here… Sources: CEIC, IMF DOTS, Rabobank But look at the same net exporter trade data as a share of US GDP (Figure 5) and we get a very different picture: the bilateral US-China trade balance has stayed near 1.3- 1.4% of US GDP for years; by contrast, the US trade position vis-à-vis Japan has improved markedly. In that regard is it irrational that the major US trade tensions are now with Beijing and not Tokyo? The US-Germany bilateral trade deficit has also grown steadily since the introduction of the Euro to around 0.4% of US GDP, above that of Japan. In that regard is it irrational that we are seeing trade tensions emerge between the US and Germany too? Of course, as neoclassical economists might counter, even if there is a problem for the US in those deficits, a country’s trade balance is the result of its own actions: the external deficit must be the sum of the internal public- and private-sector positions. That is to say, if the US runs a net fiscal, business, and household deficit, then it must automatically run a trade deficit too. Rationally speaking then, all the US needs to do to cut its trade deficit is raise taxes and/or cut government spending; and/or for households to stop spending and start saving; and/or for businesses to stop investing and sit on cash. Yet that would surely risk a US and global recession during the adjustment period! ‘Fortunately’ for net exporters reliant on the US market, there is little sign of the States following that rational path. In fact, the Trump tax cuts will widen the fiscal deficit, and unless business and households save more to counterbalance the US trade deficit will widen too. Of course, this ‘rationality’ presumes the onus is only on the US to adjust. But why is that the case when decisions made in China, Germany, and Japan in terms of their governments, households, and businesses are also key? Why are they not changing policy to see their government spend more or tax less, and/or their households save less, and/or their business invest more? -6 -4 -2 0 2 4 6 8 10 Mar-99 Mar-04 Mar-09 Mar-14 Tradesurplus,%GDP GE CH JP Figure 3: …and as for Germany! Source: IMF DOTS Figure 5: …but lots to see here! Sources: CEIC, IMF DOTS, Rabobank -2 0 2 4 6 8 10 Mar-99 Mar-04 Mar-09 Mar-14 Germanytradebalancewith....,% GDP World JP US CH 0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0 1.2 1.4 1.6 Mar-93 Mar-98 Mar-03 Mar-08 Mar-13 Bilateralttadebalance,%USGDP 4QMA CH JP GE
  5. 5. 5/10 RaboResearch | (Ir)rational | 23-04-2018, 09:34 Please note the disclaimer at the end of this document. Balancing sheets Germany runs huge business surpluses, and a household surplus, and a government surplus. Hence it produces much more than it can consume and must then run those huge trade surpluses. Yet no shift in German policy is likely, in fact it seems wedded to permanent multiple surpluses, and it looks prepared to fight the US on trade if pushed. China runs a vast government deficit (13% of GDP says the IMF) and its households are engaged in a frenetic housing bubble. Yet the ‘China model’ still generates huge savings elsewhere so that it too ends up producing far more than it can consume, with vast savings and net exports – especially vis-à-vis the US. However, rather than reform its over- producing economy, China is also clearly willing to fight Washington all the way on trade. Japan also runs a large public deficit, but one more than matched by persistently huge household and business savings. It too produces and saves too much and has to export the rest, including to the US. Tokyo seems less combative on trade than Germany or China, but it has previously tried to devalue JPY markedly via the BoJ’s QQE. As such, one can see that the US, often lectured for its lack of national savings, and notably running in the opposite direction right now, is more often forced into that role by the actions of the world’s key net exporters. They, either consciously by state policy, or subconsciously via “cultural prudence”, run large savings/exports that the US must record as dis-savings/imports on its balance sheet. Indeed, even if the US were prepared to risk recession to adjust its trade balance lower ‘rationally’, net exporters would almost certainly try to be ‘rational’ and save even more in response via taxation, devaluation, or legislation (or maybe even via tariffs or non-tariff barriers) to ensure that their trade surpluses with the US remained intact. Consequently, perhaps the only strategy left to the US is to force net exporters to adjust their public-sector, household, and/or business balance sheets. True, China can’t invest much more, or the government spend much more, but there are huge forced savings somewhere in its vast economy that if reduced would cut US dis-saving and the bilateral trade deficit; Japan can clearly invest and/or consume much more than it does; and it isn’t obligatory for Germany to run triple surpluses. On that latter front, is it irrational for the US to be publicly demanding that its allies increase their defence spending to 2% of GDP --and perhaps buy US weapons with it-- something that would mean a marked public-sector spending boost in most cases? Coals to…where? Let’s also underline another way in which our supposedly rational global system is, at root irrational; and Mr. Angell can again to help explain why this is the case, even if he previously argued for the system’s rationality! Angell continued to be an anti-war campaigner post-WW1 but his views on globalization became more nuanced. In the 1930s he argued: “The economic difficulty of the modern world is not shortage of materials but the organization of their exchange and distribution; distress arises, not from scarcity but from dislocation and maladjustment.” Specifically, he pointed out that: “If coal is to mean for the British miner food and shelter and clothing, he must get rid of it. Get rid of it, that is, to someone who has money, sell it. But how is that someone to get money? He can only get it by one means: By getting rid of his material to someone who has money, who can only get money by getting rid of his material - round the world.…Wealth…is a flow, a process, analogous to keeping the traffic moving upon the highways of the world. If that traffic is blocked…such as [by] unpayable debts… if that sort of thing happens, then material ceases to be wealth.” Basically, Angell was arguing that the international balance of payments system is more precarious and prone to imbalances than rational economics suggests is the case. After all, if country X is a net exporter, it forces country Y to become an off-setting net importer; and from a balance of payments perspective the counter-part of the net exporter-net importer trade relationship is net capital exporter-net capital importer relationship. In short, as we have already shown, if a country is a net exporter it produces more than it can consume; is therefore a net saver overall; and it must lend its savings to a net importing country so they can buy its excess production. On this there can be no disagreement. Yet there are disagreements on the ultimate consequences. ‘Rational’ economics says this is not a problem, and pre- WW1 Angell would have to; yet heterodox economics schools, and post-WW1 Angell argue that lending from country X to country Y means debt, and ultimately that ends up in debt crises if left unchecked. At that point, the “traffic is blocked” and things come to a grinding halt. That might sound obvious, but the vast majority of economists did not realise that dynamic would lead us to the 2008 (or 1929) global crises.
  6. 6. 6/10 RaboResearch | (Ir)rational | 23-04-2018, 09:34 Please note the disclaimer at the end of this document. Define ‘rational’! In short, one can make an argument that the current global system is rational, and a US-China trade war --or worse-- is irrational. However, history shows such assumptions can be very wrong. It’s also possible to argue that it’s rational from multiple angles for China to respond so aggressively to potential US tariffs; It’s hard to deny that it’s rational for net exporters to try to flood the US market with as many goods as they can; It’s rational to say there is no US trade issue with China or Germany if one looks at it one way; and rational to say there is if we look at it another; We can credibly say that the US is rational to reject being forced to dis-save and run trade deficits via the policy decisions made by global net exporters; That the rational way to respond to this domestically would likely cause a terrible recession; and that global net exporters would be rational to resist even if the US tried to do the ‘right thing’; Indeed, as a last resort we can see it as rational for the US to try to force the global net exporters to change their own domestic balance-sheet dynamics in order to achieve a narrower US trade deficit; and One can even see the entire global system as irrational given that it is predicated on a permanent increase in US debt not ending in an eventual crisis against a backdrop of rising rates! Perhaps that leaves us having to accept that there are multiple meanings in terms of the economics of rationality – and as a result the risks of trade wars, as well as other paradigmatic challenges, are more severe than the markets are pricing for!
  7. 7. RaboResearch Global Economics & Markets Global Head Jan Lambregts +44 20 7664 9669 Macro Strategy Europe Elwin de Groot Head of Macro Strategy Eurozone, ECB +31 30 216 9012 Stefan Koopman Market Economist Eurozone +31 30 216 9720 Teeuwe Mevissen Senior Market Economist Eurozone +31 30 216 9272 Bas van Geffen Quantitative Analyst ECB +31 30 216 9722 Daniël van Schoot Economist Germany, France, Belgium +31 30 213 0318 Maartje Wijffelaars Senior Economist Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece +31 30 216 8740 Alexandra Dumitru Economist UK, Ireland +31 30 216 0441 Americas Philip Marey Senior Market Strategist United States, Fed +31 30 216 9721 Hugo Erken Senior Economist United States +31 30 215 2308 Christian Lawrence Senior Market Strategist Canada, Mexico +1 212 808 6923 Mauricio Oreng Senior Market Strategist Brazil +55 11 5503 7315 Asia-Pacific Michael Every Senior Market Strategist Asia, Australia, New Zealand +852 2103 2612 Björn Giesbergen Economist China, Japan +31 30 216 2562 Hugo Erken Senior Economist India +31 30 215 2308 Themes & Scenarios Ester Barendregt Senior Economist +31 30 215 2312 Wim Boonstra Senior Advisor +31 30 216 2666 Raphie Hayat Senior Economist +31 30 215 1295
  8. 8. 8/10 RaboResearch | (Ir)rational | 23-04-2018, 09:34 Please note the disclaimer at the end of this document. FX Strategy Jane Foley Head of FX Strategy G10 FX +44 20 7809 4776 Piotr Matys FX Strategist Central & Eastern Europe FX +44 20 7664 9774 Christian Lawrence Senior Market Strategist LatAm FX +1 212 808 6923 Rates Strategy Richard McGuire Head of Rates Strategy +44 20 7664 9730 Lyn Graham-Taylor Senior Rates Strategist +44 20 7664 9774 Matt Cairns Senior SSA Strategist +44 20 7664 9502 Credit Strategy & Regulation Ruben van Leeuwen Head of Credit Strategy ABS, Covered Bonds +31 30 216 9724 Vaclav Vacikar Analyst ABS +31 30 216 9865 Hyung-Ja de Zeeuw Senior Strategist Corporates +31 30 216 9728 Bas van Zanden Senior Analyst Pension funds, Regulation +31 30 216 9727 Agri Commodity Markets Stefan Vogel Head of ACMR Grains, Oilseeds +44 20 7664 9523 Carlos Mera Senior Commodity Analyst Coffee, Cocoa and Sugar +44 20 7664 9512 Charles Clack Commodity Analyst Wheat, Cotton +44 20 7664 9756
  9. 9. 9/10 RaboResearch | (Ir)rational | 23-04-2018, 09:34 Please note the disclaimer at the end of this document. Client coverage Wholesale Corporate Clients Martijn Sorber Global Head +31 30 216 9447 Hans Deusing Netherlands +31 30 216 9045 David Kane Europe +44 20 7664 9744 Neil Williamson North America +1 212 808 6966 David Teakle Australia, New Zealand +61 2 8115 3101 Ethan Sheng Asia +852 2103 2688 Ricardo Rosa Brazil +55 11 5503 7150 Financial Institutions Eddie Villiers Global Head +44 20 7664 9834 Roeland Bronsveld Benelux +31 30 216 9030 Krishna Nayak Germany, Austria, CEE +44 20 7664 9883 Philippe Macart France +44 20 7664 9893 Mauro Giachero Italy +44 20 7664 9892 Martin Best UK, Scandinavia, Middle East +44 20 7809 4639 Paul Duddy USA +1 212 916 3799 Wouter Eijsvogel Treasury Sales – Europe +31 30 216 9723 David Pye Central Banks +44 20 7664 9865 Capital Markets Herald Top Global Head +31 30 216 9501 Rob Eilering ECM +31 30 712 2162 Mirjam Bos DCM +31 30 216 9028 Othmar ter Waarbeek DCM +31 30 216 9022
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