The U.S. Is Not That Important To China

It is common to see stories that have China's economy reeling as a result of the Trump tariffs. While it does seem that China's economy is experiencing difficulties, it is hard to tell a story where Trump's tariffs are a major factor.

First, as I pointed out in the past, China's trade surplus has actually risen in 2018 compared to 2017. In the first 10 months of 2018 (Census is not releasing new data because of the shutdown), China's surplus on goods trade was up 11.5 percent from 2017. Perhaps the surplus would have risen even more without the tariffs, but it is a bit hard to believe that China's economy is suffering too much because its surplus with the U.S. only increased by 11.5 percent.

But the other point is that China's exports to the U.S. are just not that large a share of its economy. If we assume that exports for November and December would be roughly comparable to the prior two months, then the total for 2018 would be $550 billion, which comes to 4.2 percent of its $13 trillion economy.

However, as we are endlessly reminded by supporters of recent trade deals, much of the value in these exports is generated elsewhere. For example, we count the full value of an iPhone manufactured in China as an export to the U.S. even though the vast majority of the value-added comes from other countries. (This is offset by the fact that much of the value-added of goods imported from Japan, Germany, and elsewhere is produced in China. If anyone in this dispute actually cared about reducing the trade deficit, getting China to raise the value of its currency would help to reduce both the direct and indirect trade deficit with China. But in any case, this issue is irrelevant in this context.)

Let's assume that 30 percent of the value-added in China's exports comes from other countries. This means that exports to the U.S. are equal to 3.0 percent of its GDP.

Even if we assume a very large impact from Trump tariffs, perhaps he can reduce U.S. imports from China by a third. This would be 1.0 percentage point of GDP. That is hardly trivial, but not the sort of thing that would push China into a recession.

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