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Fitch: US-China Tariff Threats Raise Global Trade Risks

Escalating tariff proposals by the U.S. and Chinese governments are increasing the risks of a full-blown trade war, says Fitch Ratings. The most likely outcome remains a negotiated solution to U.S.-China trade tensions that has limited effect on the near-term growth outlook in both countries and leaves Fitch’s base case global macroeconomic forecasts intact. However, the risk of a more material impact is growing.

Tariff proposals by the U.S. and Chinese governments last week marked an escalation in protectionist rhetoric between the world’s two largest economies. China proposed levying retaliatory tariffs against $50 billion in U.S. products and U.S. President Donald Trump stated that he was considering additional tariffs on a further $100 billion in Chinese goods to the $50 billion he had initially proposed on March 22.

China is reported to have signaled that it would respond further to such action. Whether this would come in the form of retaliatory tariffs non-tariff protectionist measures or a combination remains to be seen. The U.S. exported $187 billion in goods and services to China in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. By means of illustration, $150 billion in exports is equivalent to 0.8% of U.S. GDP and 1.3% of China’s GDP. The direct impact of tariffs of 25% on trade flows of this size would be 0.2% of U.S. GDP and 0.3% of China’s.

The potential for trade protectionism to negatively affect the U.S. and China’s growth outlook is rising with every incremental escalation in tariff rhetoric, which could lead to a full-blown trade war. Fitch outlined the potential risks of a global trade war instigated by hypothetical across-the-board U.S. tariffs imposed against key trading partners in a scenario report published last year (see research link below).

We maintain that this would be an extreme scenario, but the implications of such a wide-ranging tariff war would be significant. Both the U.S. and China would see GDP reduced by over two percentage points from the base line after two years with China being more affected. Other major economies including the Eurozone, Japan and the UK would see lesser negative effects but still see growth deceleration.

Market reaction to rising uncertainty could pose macroeconomic risks even before the tariffs’ actual implementation. A significant Chinese yuan depreciation, for example, would likely cause a shock to global markets and potentially affect investment and global trade flows.

For now, the specific proposals of $50 billion of tariffs from both countries are targeted as opposed to across-the-board and small relative to the overall size of their respective economies. Should they be implemented as proposed, we believe that the direct macroeconomic effects on trade, growth and confidence, both globally and for the U.S. and China, would be limited. We continue to forecast for U.S. GDP growth to accelerate this year to 2.7%, with the short-term economic outlook improving alongside loose fiscal policy, wage growth and improved investment. Individual sectors could be affected by the implementation of targeted tariffs though, even if the overall macroeconomic outlook is broadly unchanged.

Importantly, no U.S.-China tariffs have been implemented yet. The U.S.’ initially proposed $50 billion in tariffs are subject to a consultation process so the earliest tariffs are likely to come into effect are the end of May or early June. As such, the tariff proposals may well be part of diplomatic positioning for negotiations and may never come into effect should a mutually agreeable deal be reached that addresses U.S. concerns over the bilateral economic relationship.
Source: Fitch Ratings

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