Financial markets tend to obsess over the behavior of the American consumer, and for good reason—their spending makes up more than two thirds of activity in the world’s largest economy.
Yet there is a ‘forgotten victim’ of Donald Trump’s increasingly endless trade war that investors ignore at their own peril—consumers of the globe’s number two economy, China, says Douglas Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets.
“Conventional wisdom had it that the cost of the successive waves of U.S. tariffs on China’s imports would be spread among U.S. consumers, U.S. companies,and Chinese exporters,” Porter writes in a research note to clients.
“To this point, it looks like the U.S. consumer has been largely spared, although the proposed next round of tariffs would land much more heavily on consumer products. The same can’t be said of consumers in China.”
Porter argues that “this is the group that has been hardest hit by the trade war—and they weren’t really even in the conversation when the trade tiff began.”
The extent of China’s economic slowdown is one of the biggest sources of uncertainty for forecasters, who know not to trust the country’s unusually steady gross domestic product figures.
A consumer-led slowdown would undermine one of the key purported goals of U.S. economic policy toward China—getting the country to move away from an export led model toward a more consumption driven economy.
Stateside, a new survey shows many firms have no contingency plans should the trade war worsen, something that seems almost inevitable given Trump’s abysmal track record in striking actual deals that go beyond an empty photo-op.
“By flouting international trade rules, the administration has diminished the country’s standing in the world and led other governments to consider using the same tools to limit trade arbitrarily,” wrote economists Douglas Irwin and Chad Bown, of Dartmouth College and the Peterson Institute respectively, in a recent Foreign Affairs essay.
“In some respects, there will be no going back.”
Just witness the administration’s latest random move: Starting a new front on the wanton trade war by imposing unilateral tariffs on steel from Brazil, Argentina and France.