It is worth remembering that both sides are seeking an agreement because both sides see agreement as potentially in their interest, depending on the terms. Though Trump has warned China against retaliation—something he often does when imposing tariffs—he has also said he may decide not to impose additional tariffs on another $300-$325 billion in Chinese imports to the U.S. The two sides are reportedly still talking, though only informally. As of this writing, no further formal negotiations are scheduled.
We have been asked repeatedly since Sunday whether China will resort to yuan devaluation or selling of Treasury debt as a means of retaliation against the U.S. The perception that China has limited scope for responding through tariffs seems to motivate these questions.
We have maintained for some time that China is unlikely to use financial tools as trade weapons. One reason is that using financial weapons could backfire—China could suffer capital flight. Another is that financial weapons tend to have mixed effects. Selling Treasuries to drive up U.S. interest rates would strengthen the yuan, but the U.S. would be happy with a stronger yuan. Weakening the yuan against the dollar would most likely involve buying Treasuries, helping the U.S. to finance its deficit and lowering U.S. borrowing costs.
Evaluating the risk that U.S.-China trade relations could spin out of control requires evaluating Trump’s intentions. From the beginning, the U.S. has acted and China has reacted, with U.S. action largely dictated by Trump. That is problematic. Economics offers no useful tools in evaluating Trump’s motives, and psychology practiced at a distance is rarely fruitful.
Still, some evaluation is necessary, and we think it is reasonable to break the situation down to two possibilities:
- Trump wants a trade deal, and this is his way of negotiating. Aggressive tactics and bluster are the way he pursues a “great deal,” and as long as there is not a nearly finalized deal that can be signed very soon, there is time to push for more. The “Trump put” is real, and stock market losses will constrain the president if they persist.
- The “Trump put” is a fiction. The president cares more about getting a trade deal to his liking than he does about the stock market. There are some issues on which Trump will not yield in negotiations with China, and those issues have not yet been resolved.
The pattern in earlier negotiations has been consistent with the first possibility. Trump’s announcement that the U.S. may not pile on additional tariffs is also consistent with the first possibility. The second possibility could prove especially damaging for stocks in the near term, because the assumption of a “Trump put” is important beyond the U.S.-China trade dispute.