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Remember Trump’s trade deal with China? So far they are buying half what was promised

October 3, 2020, 8:00 AM UTC

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President Trump likes to brag that his big trade agreement with China is a great deal for America’s farmers and manufacturers. It’s a centerpiece of his “Americans first” agenda, he claims, that will swell our exports of everything from soybeans to LNG. Trump touted the signing of the “Phase 1” accord in January as marking a “sea change” that will enable “Chinese consumers to enjoy the greatest products on earth: those made, grown and raised right here in the USA.”

But so far, the pact is delivering only about half the benefits the president promised. “The size of the export increases in the deal never made sense to begin with,” says Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics. “It was really a campaign promise that was totally unrealistic from the start.”

Bown’s comparison of the amounts China agreed to spend on U.S. exports versus its actual purchases for the first eight months of 2020 supports that assertion. Under Phase 1, China pledged to buy a total of $200 billion more on U.S. goods in 2020 and 2021 than in 2017. For this year, the overall target is $142.7 billion, representing a $63.9 billion, or 80% increase over the “baseline” number just four years ago. The agreement encompasses three broad categories: agriculture, manufacturing, and energy. It stipulates the specific products in each sector “covered” by the pact, and sets individual goals for all three industries.

The goals are based on annual, not monthly, purchases. Still, the numbers posted from January to August show that China is slow-walking when it pledged to speed-up, and would need a super-sprint come anywhere near the $140 billion-plus mark. Bown pro-rated the targets for the first eight months of 2020, and compared those benchmarks to actual exports.

For agricultural goods, the annualized goal so far this year is $22.3 billion. China’s running what looks like a big shortfall, having purchased just $9.6 billion in our farm products through August. In manufactured goods, China’s done better: It’s bought $33.2 billion from our factories, fulfilling 60% of the year-to-date quota is $55.4 billion. As for energy, China’s imported $3.5 billion in U.S. natural gas and oil, reaching around one-quarter of the eight-month bogey of $17.4 billion.

All told, China pro-rated target for the first eight months is $95 billion (representing 2/3 of the calendar year’s $142.7 billion). But so far this year, the world’s second largest economy imported almost precisely half that number, $47.6 billion, is U.S. products. Put simply, China’s made good on just one-third of its pledge for 2020. The agreement didn’t cover 39% of the products American businesses shipped to China in 2017, an area that includes technology gear from PCs to semiconductors. In that “uncovered” category, our exports totaled $19.1 billion through July, 30% below the same period in 2017.

For Bown, the stretch goals set in Phase 1 are still a plus even though China is failing to reach them. He believes that purchases could pick up in the fall, since U.S. soybeans are a huge seller in China, and the harvest is yet to come. “That’s been a $13 billion to $14 billion-a-year product that could ramp up,” he says. Still, he says that the targets were unachievable from the get-go, because they so far exceeded previous shipments in the three sectors, and China’s wasn’t growing nearly fast enough to consume quantities that much bigger than in 2017. “The U.S. was also facing capacity constraints that made it impossible to produce all the goods China was committing to buy,” he says. He notes that energy producers complained that they couldn’t extract enough oil and LNG to satisfy the orders China was promising.

The deal’s still a good thing, he says, because it’s preventing the deteriorating trade relations between China and the U.S. from getting even worse. “We’re now putting restrictions on exporting our own semi-conductors and chip-making equipment to China,” says Bown, “and those are product our companies want to sell to China, and that China needs.” While the Trump administration is calling a halt on trade in those and other products, Phase 1 is keeping exports flowing in triumvirate of agriculture, manufacturing and energy. It’s a disturbing barometer of how far free-trade has fallen that a deal delivering half of what’s promised can be deemed a success.