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Latest Issue

China for the Trade Win?

September 21, 2018

With all the trade war talk, we all ask the obvious question: Who will win? President Trump says the US will win. Chinese business leaders say no, we will win. Free-traders on both sides say no one will win. Few stop to ask, “What does a ‘win’ look like?”

This makes discussion difficult. People are chasing after a condition they can’t even define. Victory will remain elusive until they know what they want. Regardless, you can score me on the “no one wins” side. I believe, and I think a lot of evidence proves, that free trade between nations is the best way to maximize long-run prosperity for everyone.

However…

As Keynes famously said, we’re all dead in the long run. Trade war may end with no winners, but the parties will be better and worse off at various times as it progresses. So we have to distinguish between “winning” and “holding a temporary lead.”

On that basis, I think the US will have the upper hand initially, and could hold it for a year or two. This is because, for now, our economy is relatively strong and we can better withstand any Chinese retaliation. Beyond that point I think our current policies will begin to backfire, maybe spectacularly.

Remember, too, China has growing trade surpluses with much of the world. One Chinese insider told me that within four years China can replace lost US exports via increased trading with the rest of the world. I can’t verify that but looking at general statistics it certainly seems plausible. That doesn’t mean lost US...

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