Published on 2019-08-14

Decoupling is still the biggest – and still growing – U.S.-China Trade War Story.

August 10, 2019

By Alan Tonelson

Amazing as it sounds given the rush of developments and headlines over the last week, one big U.S.-China trade-related story remains largely overlooked, even though it keeps getting more and more important. Because of President Trump’s tariffs and retaliatory duties from Beijing, the American and Chinese economies continue decoupling from each other which so far has been unmistakably good for the United States. More specifically, U.S. economic growth has less and less to do all the time with trade with China, whether we’re talking exports or imports.

The story begins with the importance of two-way U.S.-China trade to the American economy as a whole. Since the Trump tariffs began, in the spring of 2018, it’s shrunk dramatically in the goods category. (Timely info on bilateral services trade isn’t available – and it’s a relatively small share of total trade anyway.) The table below shows goods exports and imports between the two countries as a share of the U.S. economy (gross domestic product, or GDP) in pre-inflation dollars – the measure most commonly used and followed. As you can see from those left-hand column numbers, since the current U.S. economic recovery from the last recession began (in the middle of 2009), this figure rose steadily through 2014, and has nosedived rapidly this year. (The 2019 figures measure growth since the first and second quarters of 2018, respectively – i.e., over most of the course of the trade war so far.)

And of special significance, as this shrinkage has gathered steam, the United States has turned in most of its strongest recent growth numbers. This development can be seen by comparing the left-hand column with the middle column (showing annual current-dollar growth rates). Or look at it this way: Two-way bilateral trade was last in this neighborhood as a share of the economy in 2009 – as an historically deep recession was ending. Nowadays, however, growth is solid by the last decade’s standards.

This relationship is even clearer from the right-hand column, which shows the relationship between China trade as a share of the U.S. economy and U.S. growth rate. Specifically, under the Obama administration, as this trade was rising as a share of GDP, the latter strongly exceeded the former only once (that is, approached the results of the Trump years) in 2014. (That is, the number on the left of the colon was significantly higher than the “one” on the right.) But during all of the Trump years, these results have hit that lofty level – and then some.

2-way China trade/GDP   GDP change   ratio of China trade/GDP to GDP change

2009:      2.53                        -1.79                                    n/a

2010:      3.05                         3.76                                  1.24:1

2011:      3.24                         3.67                                  1.13:1

2012:      3.31                         4.21                                  1.27:1

2013:      3.35                         3.63                                  1.08:1

2014:      3.38                         4.42                                  1.31:1

2015:      3.29                         3.98                                  1.21:1

2016:      3.09                         2.69                                 0.87:1

2017:      3.25                         4.30                                 1.32:1

2018:      3.21                         5.43                                 1.69:1

1Q 2019:  2.51                       4.64                                 1.85:1

2Q 2019:  2.61                       4.04                                 1.55:1

Then there’s the notion that the U.S. economy usually happens to grow fastest when its trade deficits overall (including with China) balloon – supposedly meaning that these trade shortfalls at least reflect strong economic performance, and that any policies meant to reduce them are dangerously misguided. But the latest U.S. data continue to debunk that notion completely.

The table below shows annual pre-inflation percentage GDP growth in the left-hand column, starting in 2009 and ending with the figures for the years ending in the first and second quarters of this year. The middle column shows the annual percentage growth rate of the American goods deficit with China, and the right-hand column shows the ratio between the two.

GDP change                      China goods trade deficit growth          ratio

2009:     -1.79                                                -15.36                               -8.58:1

2010:      3.76                                                  20.35                                5.41:1

2011:      3.67                                                    8.13                                2.22:1

2012:      4.21                                                    6.72                                1.60:1

2013:     3.63                                                     1.14                                3.18:1

2014:     4.42                                                     8.20                                1.86:1

2015:     3.98                                                     6.53                                1.64:1

2016:     2.69                                                   -5.58                                   n/a

2017:     4.30                                                    8.25                                1.92:1

2018:     5.43                                                  11.75                                2.16:1

1Q 19    4.64                                                 -11.92                                  n/a

2Q 19    4.04                                                   -8.44                                  n/a

The above results for one of the Obama years shows robust U.S. economic growth as the goods trade deficit with China surged. But that year was 2009-10 – the first recovery year, when all U.S. trade snapped back sharply following an especially deep recessionary dive (as made clear in the 2008-09 results). Once the economy settled into a more sustainable mode, the supposed relationship breaks down completely.

And the results for the latest Trump years demonstrate strong growth occurring side-by-side with major reductions in the U.S.-China goods trade deficit.

Faring no better is the claim that many U.S.-based industries need inexpensive Chinese inputs (parts, components, materials) for their products in order to remain globally competitive. The following table shows the annual rates of change for the nation’s goods imports from China and its economic growth (or contraction, as in the case of 2009). Otherwise, how could the economy have registered its strong performance over the last year even as goods imports from China have been falling at double-digits percentage rates?

US goods imports from China                  GDP change

2009:                  12.26                                                  -1.79

2010:                  23.14                                                    3.76

2011:                    9.43                                                    3.67

2012:                    6.57                                                    4.21

2013:                    3.48                                                   3.63

2014:                    6.37                                                   4.42

2015:                    3.14                                                   3.98

2016:                  -4.30                                                   2.69

2017:                   9.26                                                   4.30

2018:                   6.82                                                   5.43

1Q 19:              -13.11                                                   4.64

2Q 19:              -10.89                                                   4.04

And the idea that access to the China market is vital for the American economy?

US goods exports to China                     GDP change

2009:                    -0.34                                              -1.79

2010:                   32.25                                               3.76

2011:                   13.29                                               3.67

2012:                     6.41                                               4.21

2013:                   10.16                                               3.63

2014:                     1.57                                               4.42

2015:                   -6.29                                               3.98

2016:                   -0.24                                               2.69

2017:                  12.29                                               4.30

2018:                   -7.43                                               5.43

1Q 19                -19.56                                               4.64

2Q 19                -18.20                                               4.04

According to the above figures, that claim didn’t even hold during the Obama years. (See, e.g., 2014 and 2015). And as with imports, the economy has grown impressively during the Trump years despite record declines in sales to China.

U.S. growth at acceptable rates as trade with an ever more belligerent China shrivels is of course good news from a national security standpoint. But given China’s long record of economic predation and other interventionist policies that inevitably distort markets for goods and services, it’s good news from a purely economic standpoint, too – whether it makes headlines or not.

Alan Tonelson, a columnist for IndustryToday, is founder of the RealityChek blog (alantonelson.wordpress.com), which covers manufacturing, trade, the economy, and national security. He has written for many leading publications on these subjects and is the author of The Race to the Bottom (Westview Press, 2000).

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