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By Martha C. White
The stock market surged Monday, following a weekend meeting between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, when the leaders of the world’s two largest economies nominally agreed on a ceasefire of sorts in the escalating trade war.
“This is the first time that we have a commitment from them that this will be a real agreement,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a Monday interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box.
On Twitter, Trump also said China agreed to cut tariffs on American-made cars shipped into China. Pre-market activity showed a jump in the shares of U.S. automakers and equipment manufacturers like Caterpillar, which stand to benefit if Trump’s claims of an “incredible deal” with China come to fruition.
Wall Street’s optimism, though, was tempered by discrepancies coming from Washington, D.C. and Beijing regarding exactly what the two leaders had agreed to during their dinner together at the G-20 summit in Argentina, and a new survey of business leaders shows that trade tensions look to be a growing problem for the economy in 2019.
“Trade is now the most important issue to markets,” said Dave Carter, chief investment officer at Lenox Wealth Advisors. “The result of the G-20 meeting was probably the best realistic outcome [but] it was just a pause, not a long term solution. The negotiations need to continue.”
The U.S. said it will suspend additional tariffs on Chinese imports for 90 days to allow trade representatives from the two countries to work out a compromise. Tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods were set to rise from 10 percent to 25 percent on Jan. 1, and Trump had threatened to levy tariffs on an additional $267 billion in Chinese goods — which represents the entirety of China’s trade with the U.S.
Trump told reporters on board Air Force One that China is “getting rid of tariffs,” an assertion echoed by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the official White House statement was more circumspect. In addition, existing trade sanctions of 10 percent on that $200 billion worth of Chinese exports will remain in place — and China’s state-run media played down the 90-day time frame.
The White House statement did specifically address agriculture; farmers in electorally significant parts of the country have been struggling due to retaliatory tariffs China implemented on imports of soybeans and other crops.
“China will agree to purchase a not yet agreed upon, but very substantial, amount of agricultural, energy, industrial, and other product from the United States,” the statement said. “China has agreed to start purchasing agricultural product from our farmers immediately.” Futures in corn, wheat and soy products jumped overnight, according to Allendale, Inc., which conducts research and analysis in agricultural commodities.
“Farmers will be a a very BIG and FAST beneficiary of our deal with China,” Trump tweeted on Monday, adding, “Farmers, I LOVE YOU!”
Trade experts say the current truce could be just putting off the inevitable, though. Addressing the big sticking points — including intellectual property rights and technology transfers under Chinese joint-venture partnerships — would likely take longer than three months.
“The result shows the willingness of the two sides to reach a deal, although we still think finding a mutually agreeable compromise that leads to a comprehensive rollback of tariffs will be challenging,” Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in a research note Sunday.
There is mounting evidence that trade woes are starting to weigh on the minds of American business executives. According to the December survey from the National Association for Business Economics, a whopping 80 percent of survey respondents have lowered their expectations of GDP growth next year because of Trump’s trade policies.
“Panelists view increasing trade tensions as the primary downside risk to their outlook,” NABE survey chair and chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics Gregory Daco said in a statement.
NABE also found that nearly two-thirds of respondents have lowered their predictions for business investment next year, while roughly the same number have raised their inflation forecasts — and more than 40 percent cut their expectations of consumer spending.
“The uncertainty around trade will linger much longer than three months. This can absolutely disrupt business supply chains as well as capital spending,” Carter said. “Markets have responded well to the initial truce; however, we’d expect future volatility and concern regarding the negotiations. It’s not over.”