Was Today’s Market Rally On Hopes Of Avoiding A China/U.S. Trade War Justified? Here’s The State Of What We Know

Global financial markets rallied today on a speech by China’s President Xi Jinping at a regional economic meeting that seemed to pull China and the United States back from the cliff and a potential global trade war. Xi promised to open up China’s economy, to raise the limits on foreign ownership in the aircraft, shipbuilding and auto industries and to reduce tariffs on auto imports and on some other products.

We’ve heard some of these promises–especially the “open up the economy” promise–before and it’s not clear if the promise to reduce tariffs on imported goods adds up to more than the $50 billion China offered last week and that U.S. trade representatives rejected. And you’ll note the absence of a breakthrough position on protecting intellectual property, a key demand from the Trump administration.

But I can certainly understand why the markets greeted Xi’s speech with a big relief rally. Last Thursday trade talks between China and the United States broke down after China had rejected a U.S. request to stop subsidizing industries related to its Made in China 2025 plan. The United States has accused China of forcing companies in sectors such as robotics, aerospace, and artificial intelligence to transfer technology as the price of doing business in China as a key part of that initiative. In addition China had offered to narrow the annual trade deficit by $50 billion by importing more liquefied natural gas, more farm products, more semiconductors, and more luxury goods. China would also open its financial sector to U.S. companies at a faster pace and give U.S.companies more access to China’s e-commerce market.

You’ll notice that even in Xi’s speech there was just about nothing to address the Trump administration’s charge that China steals intellectual property from non-Chinese companies that want access to the Chinese market. In fact an article in the People’s Daily probably should be construed as rejecting the U.S. contention. The commentary, after Xi delivered his speech, said Beijing would never open up its economy at the expense of its interests–a signal that it would continue supporting Made in China 2025.

China has also said that it will file formal complaints against the U.S. tariff action on steel and aluminum with the World Trade Organization asking for 60 days of consultations with the United States. If those talks were to fail, a panel of experts at the WTO would rule on the legality of the U.S. tariff actions.

Net/net: I think we’ve seen just the opening rounds of serious negotiations that could well stretch on for months. So far the two sides haven’t moved measurably closer to settling their dispute–I’d regard the Chinese offer to close the trade gap by an annual $50 billion when the U.S. deficit with China in goods and services was $375 billion as little more than an opening low-ball bid–which leaves plenty of time for the rhetoric to ramp up and down and back up again over the next three to four months. It remains to be seen whether ups and downs in rhetoric themselves unsettle the financial markets.