China I: Getting Trumped. I’m coming around to a new working hypotheses on the outlook for China’s economy. I think it could be much weaker much sooner than widely recognized. A significant slowing in the growth rate of inflation-adjusted retail sales over the past couple of years suggests that the aging demographic factor—attributable to the government’s previous population control measure—may be hitting consumer spending significantly already. As a result, Trump’s escalating trade war with China may very well hurt China’s economy much harder than widely realized.

Furthermore, what if Trump’s trade war with China isn’t just about trade? Yes, we all know it is also about intellectual property rights. But what if at heart it’s about China’s superpower ambitions—as evidenced by its moves to control the South China Sea, to build the “Silk Road” linking China to Europe by way of Central Asia, and to exploit the resources of Africa? The Chinese government, under President-for-life Xi Jinping, is intent on challenging America’s status as the world’s sole superpower. So why should the US continue to enable Xi’s geopolitical masterplan by allowing the Chinese to run a huge trade surplus with the US and to steal US technology?

The Trump administration’s overarching policy goal vis-à-vis China, therefore, may be first and foremost to use America’s economic power to slow, or even halt, the ascent of China into a superpower, which will challenge America’s interests around the world. If so, then any concessions that the Chinese make on trade and technology are likely to be rejected by the Trump administration. In other words, they have nothing to offer that would satisfy Trump other than an unconditional retreat from their geopolitical expansion plans, which they will never do voluntarily.

So Trump may very well raise the ante soon by slapping a permanent 25% tariff on all goods that the US imports from China. The goal isn’t to force concessions out of China but rather to get manufacturers out of China and into either the US (ideally) or to countries such as Mexico that do agree to the terms of bilateral trade deals with the US!

Of course, manufacturers who stay in China won’t be paying the 25% tariff: US consumers who buy China-made goods will be hit with that price hike. However, to remain competitive in the US, manufacturers are likely to scramble to other countries that can export to the US without having the US dollar price of their goods marked up by 25%.

I have one piece of anecdotal evidence that companies may be starting to move out of China already. A good friend of mine has a small business in Manhattan designing and selling high-end raincoats in the US. He has been manufacturing them in Vietnam. He stopped making them in China a few years ago because labor costs have been rising there, while they remain low in Vietnam. He told me he was shocked recently when his Vietnamese vendor had to lengthen delivery schedules from four months to six months because it was swamped with orders that used to be filled in China prior to Trump’s trade war.

Now consider the following recent developments before we review China’s depressing demographic outlook:

(1) Peter Navarro’s view. A Monday 9/24 CNBC article reported that Peter Navarro, director of the National Trade Council at the White House, said getting a trade deal with China will be tough: “The challenge is, they've engaged in so many egregious practices that it's far more difficult to make a deal with China than it would be with Mexico.” Navarro is a former economics professor and author of The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought, How They Can Be Won (2006).

A 6/24 Axios article quoted Navarro saying: “Since China joined the WTO [i.e., the World Trade Organization] in 2001, the U.S. has lost over 70,000 factories, more than five million manufacturing jobs, and suffered from substantially lower real GDP growth rates. As America’s manufacturing and defense industrial base has weakened, China’s has strengthened and we now face a strategic rival in places like the South China Sea whose military forces have been largely financed by the massive trade deficits the U.S. runs with China.”

Navarro had more to say on this subject in a 6/20 WSJ article titled “Trump’s Tariffs Are a Defense Against China’s Aggression: Beijing seeks economic and military domination by taking U.S. technology and intellectual property.” His opening paragraph said it all: “The Chinese government’s Made in China 2025 blueprint reveals Beijing’s audacious plans to dominate emerging technology industries. Many of these targeted sectors, such as artificial intelligence and robotics, have clear implications for defense. China seeks to achieve its goal of economic and military domination in part by acquiring the best American technology and intellectual property. President Trump’s new tariffs will provide a critical shield against this aggression.”

(2) Higher tariffs. Also on Monday 9/24, Washington slapped tariffs of 10% on $200 billion of Chinese products that include furniture and appliances, and the rate will increase to 25% by the end of the year. President Xi Jinping's government retaliated by imposing taxes on 5,207 US imports, worth about $60 billion. Products such as liquefied natural gas, coffee, and various types of edible oil will see a 10% levy, while a 5% tax will be imposed on items such as frozen vegetables, cocoa powder, and chemical products.

The US and China already had applied tariffs to $50 billion of each other's goods. Trump has warned that any retaliation by China would prompt Washington to “immediately pursue phase three, which is tariffs on approximately $267 billion of additional imports.”

Trump has overtly expressed his desire to narrow the US trade deficit with China significantly and to bring back manufacturing capacity to the US, so he may not declare victory in his trade war with China until Apple is making most of its iPhones in the US. It’s also conceivable that Trump may be mollified if Chinese leaders relinquish at least some of the country’s unfair trade practices, especially those related to foreign technology investment. But even if Trump’s negotiations with China and other countries don’t succeed in getting what he wants, they may succeed in providing more opportunities for the US to shop around for fairer trading partners.

Interestingly, cell phones and other household items is the largest category of imports to the US from China, according to the World Economic Forum. China isn’t the only place in the world to make cell phones, though. South Korean electronics giant Samsung is “now looking to fend off Chinese companies trying to dominate the market for inexpensive phones” by expanding manufacturing into India, according to an article in the 9/4 WSJ. The company’s new facility in a New Delhi suburb, to be completed in 2020, will eventually make 120 million handsets a year, or roughly one of every 13 phones in the world. Around 30% of those will be exported.

(3) Arms race. On Thursday 9/20, Washington imposed sanctions on a Chinese military unit for purchasing Russian weapons, claiming the transaction violated a US sanctions law known as “Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” which was signed by President Trump on August 2, 2017. The act imposed sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The Chinese government summoned the US ambassador in Beijing over the matter and said Beijing would recall its navy chief from a visit to the US.

On 9/25, the US approved a $330 million arms sale to Taiwan in another sign of Washington’s support for the government in Taipei amid rising Chinese pressure on the country. In the latter years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Washington dropped annual weapons sales to Taiwan in favor of bundling sales every few years, a move that was seen as acquiescence to pressure from China. Under Trump, there may be a return to the routine sale of weapons to Taiwan, despite protests from China.

Meanwhile, China has sought to strengthen its claim to the South China Sea by building seven islands on reefs and equipping them with military facilities such as airstrips, radar domes, and missile systems. Five other governments claim territory in the oil- and gas-rich area, through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes annually. Last Thursday, China called a recent mission by nuclear-capable US B-52 bombers over the disputed South China Sea “provocative.”

China II: Why Trump Won. Trump won on November 8, 2016 because he appealed to voters who lost manufacturing jobs after China entered the WTO and manufacturers left the US. Previously, I’ve shown a chart that clearly shows this development. It tracks US manufacturing production and capacity since January 1948 (Fig. 1). The two were on similar and solid uptrends—tracking at about 4% per year on average—until China joined the WTO during December 2001. Both have been flat ever since. I estimate that if the trend prior to December 2001 had persisted, US manufacturing capacity would be 77% higher than it was during August of this year (Fig. 2)!

We can also guesstimate China’s impact on jobs. Factory payrolls dropped 4.3 million from December 2001 (when China joined the WTO) through March 2010 to the lowest level since March 1941 (Fig. 3). They were still down 3.4 million through Election Day 2016 and 3.0 million through August of this year.

The ratio of US factory jobs to capacity has declined 24% since the end of 2001 through August of this year, presumably reflecting productivity gains (Fig. 4). If capacity had remained on its uptrend prior to China joining the WTO, factory employment arguably would be 53%, or 6.7 million jobs, higher than August’s level of 12.7 million. (We derived the percentage increase by subtracting 77% from 24%.)

So Trump’s victory on Election Day 2016 may largely reflect the hostile reaction of America’s manufacturing Heartland to China’s ascent, presumably at US factory workers’ expense.

China III: The Most Important Indicator. While manufacturing employment may be the key indicator explaining why Trump beat Clinton, inflation-adjusted retail sales in China may be the most important variable for tracking the impact of China’s increasingly dismal demographic profile on its economy. Consider the following:

(1) Real retail sales. Every month, the Chinese report retail sales and the consumer price index (CPI). We’ve been monitoring the yearly percent changes in both for many years (Fig. 5). The difference between the two is the growth rate in real retail sales. It has been on a downtrend since 2008-2010 when it typically exceeded 15%. During August of this year, it was down to 6.7%, one of the lowest readings since China joined the WTO at the end of 2001. It is down from 9.3% two years ago.

(2) Industrial production. Real retail sales has actually been growing faster than industrial production since early 2012 (Fig. 6). The latter has been growing around 6.0% y/y since 2015. It is likely to fall sooner rather than later if the downtrend in real retail sales persists (as suggested by the demographic trends discussed below) and Trump’s trade war weighs on exports.

(3) Credit. All of the above suggests that the Chinese government may have no choice but to continue propping up economic growth with debt-financed infrastructure spending. Bank loans (in yuan) have quadrupled in China since February 2009 (Fig. 7). Yet the Chinese are getting less and less bang per yuan. The ratio of Chinese industrial production to bank loans has dropped by roughly 50% since late 2008 (Fig. 8).

It’s possible that my analysis so far is too negative. Missing is the growing importance of services industries in China. Nevertheless, demography is destiny, and the Chinese government made an increasingly dismal global outlook on this front much worse in China.

China IV: Depressing Demographic Destiny. In Chapter 16 of my book, Predicting the Markets, I discuss China’s depressing demographic destiny. That discussion is especially relevant to today’s commentary:

“The fertility rate in China plunged from 6.1 in the mid-1950s to below 2.0 during 1996 (Fig. 9). Still below 2.0, it’s projected to remain so through the end of the century. Initially, the drop was exacerbated by the government’s response to the country’s population explosion, which was to introduce the one-child policy in 1979. While that slowed China’s population growth—to a 10-year growth rate of 0.5% at an annual rate in 2016 from a 3.0% pace in 1972—it also led to a shortage of young adult workers and a rapidly aging population.

“So the government reversed course, with a two-child policy effective January 1, 2016. Births soared by 7.9% that year with the deliveries of about 18 million newborns. But that was still short of the government estimates and might not be sustainable. At least 45% of the babies born during 2016 were to families that already had one child. [For more, see link.]

“Meanwhile, urbanization has proceeded apace, with the urban population rising from about 12% in 1950 to 49% during 2010; it was an estimated 57% in 2016 (Fig. 10). The urban population has been increasing consistently by around 20 million in most years since 1996 (Fig. 11). To urbanize that many people requires the equivalent of building one Houston, Texas per month, as I discuss in Chapter 2. I first made that point in a 2004 study.

“The move to a two-child policy is coming too late, in my opinion. China’s primary working-age population peaked at a record high of just over 1.0 billion during 2014 and is projected to fall to 815 million by 2050 (Fig. 12). By then, the primary working-age population in China will represent 60% of the total population, below the peak of 74% during 2010 (Fig. 13). The elderly dependency ratio will drop from 7.5 workers per senior in 2015 to 2.3 by 2050 (Fig. 14).

“In any event, despite the initial mini baby boom, the fertility rate is unlikely to rise much in response to the government’s new policy. Many young married couples living in China’s cities are hard-pressed to afford having just one child. An October 30, 2015 blog post on the Washington Post website, titled “Why Many Families in China Won’t Want More than One Kid Even if They Can Have Them,” made that point, observing that education is particularly expensive, as parents feel compelled to prepare their child to compete for the best colleges and jobs. Another problem is that most couples are the only offspring of their aging parents, who require caregiving resources that rule out having a second child. As it says in the Bible, ‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’”