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Trade War Game On!


Interesting Times Arrive

“Things sure are getting exciting again, ain’t they?”  The remark was made by a colleague on Tuesday morning, as we stepped off the elevator to grab a cup of coffee.

Ancient Chinese

Ancient Chinese curse alert… - Click to enlarge

“One moment markets are gorging on financial slop like fat pigs in mud.  The next they’re collectively vomiting on themselves. I’ll tell you one thing.  President Trump’s trade war with China won’t end well.  I mean, come on.  China’s outplayed the U.S. at this game for over a quarter century.  They have the upper hand.

“Besides, what’s the point?  If we no longer buy stuff from China, then how will China buy Uncle Sam’s debt?  And the timing for all this couldn’t be worse.  Deficits are spiraling out of control.  We’re talking $1 trillion or more a year for the next decade.  I don’t see any way out of this quagmire, do you?

“Printing money to buy government debt is no solution at all.  And a trade war will just hasten America’s insolvency.  What is it that Trump thinks he’ll accomplish, anyway?

“I’ve also heard that China’s tickled the debt poodle way more than we have.  So they may be worse off at absorbing an economic shock than us.  But I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

“Obviously, like I said, this won’t end well.  Yet there’s no turning back now. The trade war genie’s already out of the bottle.  That’s easy enough to see.  And maybe President Trump is right, and a trade war with China is warranted.

A joint hanging venture

A joint hanging venture… - Click to enlarge

“But in the end, something big – like a massive fighting war or worldwide depression – will need to happen before this genie can be put safely back inside the bottle.  How do I know this?

“I know this because this is how these peacocks on the walk contests always play out.  The invisible line has been crossed.  Trump and Xi Jinping have both gone all in. There’s no backing up.  There’s no walking away.  They’ll keep chest bumping each other until something serious happens.  Then it will really be game on.”

US Federal Debt, 1978 - 2018

US Federal Debt, 1978 - 2018

It cries out for funding… the federal debtberg in all its glory. - Click to enlarge

Integration and Disintegration

Certainly, our colleague brings up some good points.  Is a trade war upon us?  If so, where will it lead?  Here we take a deep breath, and a sip of coffee, and endeavor to offer some perspective.

Expansions and contractions in global trade have rotated back and forth over long secular trends for thousands of years. The Silk Road, for example, was established by the Han Dynasty of China in 130 BC.  This trade route provided continuous conduit for the exchange of goods, culture, and knowledge, between east and west for nearly 1,600 years.

Trade along the Silk Road came to an abrupt end when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks in 1453 AD.  For whatever reason, maybe a madman was President, geopolitical trends turned inward towards isolation. The Ottoman Empire closed the Silk Road and cut all ties with the west.

Sultan Mehmet II

Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror: not a friend of free trade - Click to enlarge

Global trade these days is conducted by shipping cargo across the international waters of the high seas.  Trade cycles over the last 200 years have often expanded for such a lengthy duration that several generations will come and go while only knowing the expansionary half of the trend. These extended expansionary episodes compel people to believe that increased global trade is a linear phenomenon.

You have to go back to pre-1960 in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe to find someone with living memory of a global trade contraction.  China’s latest trade expansion began in the 1970s.  Eastern Europe’s began in the early 1990s.

Just because global trade has expanded for the last 50 years doesn’t mean it will continue to expand without interruption.  In fact, geopolitical shocks have periodically disrupted or reversed overall long-term trends in expanding global trade.  According to the World Trade Report 2013:


“Politics [at times] has intervened – sometimes consciously, sometimes accidentally – to slow down or even roll back the integrationist pressures of technology and markets.  It is this complex interplay of structural and political forces that explains the successive waves of economic integration and disintegration over the past 200 years; and in particular how the seemingly inexorable rise of the ‘first age of globalization’ in the 19th century was abruptly cut short between 1914 and 1945 – by the related catastrophes of the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War – only to be followed by the rise of a ‘second age of globalization’ during the latter half of the 20th century.”

China Shipping Boat

A little row-boat with trinkets from China. - Click to enlarge

Trade War Game On!

Presently, it’s unclear if we’re in the early stages of a global trade contraction. The trend in expanding global trade appears to have slowed over the last decade, following the 2008 financial crisis.  The budding trade war between the United States and China just might be the geopolitical shock that closes out the ‘second age of globalization.’

Trump and Xi

It wasn’t all that long ago, when they were still the best of friends… - Click to enlarge

This week Trump and Xi likely pushed the trade war past the point of no return. They called each other’s bluffs and raised the stakes as the week progressed.  By Thursday things had hit a fever pitch.

Our friends at Zero Hedge have been closely monitoring the situation.  Here are several choice quotes they alerted us to from an editorial published in the Global Times, China’s state-owned party mouthpiece:


“Many believe that the Trump administration’s $50 billion tariff on Chinese products is meant to pressure China to submit to the U.S. demands.  If that is the case, the U.S. will undoubtedly lose.  This is because the Chinese government has rallied its citizens and is prepared to go toe-to-toe in its fight with Washington.  In fact, more and more Chinese citizens think that an ‘epic trade war’ is inevitable, and could knock some common sense into the U.S. government, so that it will change its way of dealing with China.

“If the trade war happens, China will show that it has just as many reserve plans as the U.S., if not more.  Chinese experts suggest that China could even take actions to weaken the strength of its currency.  Since China is the world’s largest trading economy and the largest buyer of commodities like oil products, China could use its influence to push its own currency, RMB, in global markets to reduce the dominance of the U.S. dollar.  That would be a heavy blow to Washington.

“If this trade war comes to pass, it will be an evenly matched total war between China and the U.S. economies, and not some small scuffle.  It would be delusional for the U.S. to think it will be victorious at the end of this trade war.  China comes up with the conclusion in confidence, and will not shy away from letting Washington know in this situation.”



Alas, not good friends anymore. - Click to enlarge

By Thursday evening Trump had ordered US Trade Representatives to consider raising Chinese import tariffs an additional $100 billion, from $50 billion to $150 billion.

Trump and Xi

Definitely not friends anymore! - Click to enlarge

Several hours later, “Beijing vowed to defend China’s national interest against U.S. trade actions and protectionism.”

Now we’re talking.  Trade war game on!

Trade War

In closing, lettuce spare a thought for the victims… - Click to enlarge


Chart by: St. Louis Fed

Chart and image captions by PT


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About MN Gordon
MN Gordon
Making sense of the latest economic policy touted by the Federal Reserve or the U.S. Treasury is an exercise in befuddlement. No doubt about it, the economics trade is overcome with an abundance of nonsense these days. This is no coincidence. M.G. Gordon of Economic Prism looks to bring clarity to the muddy waters of economic policy.
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