Hear that sigh of relief on Wall Street?
At first glance Wednesday, it looked as if President Trump halted his trade war. Trump hosted European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the White House, and the two happily announced a “deal” on trade. Europe agreed to buy more soybeans and liquefied natural gas from the United States, and Trump agreed not to put any more tariffs, for now, on the E.U. Traders cheered the news, sending the stock market higher.
But there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical that Trump has suddenly changed his mind on trade. The details of the agreement with Europe are thin, there’s still a trade deficit that Trump hates, and only a day ago the president tweeted that “tariffs are the greatest.”
1. There’s still a trade deficit. Trump detests the U.S. trade deficit with Europe, China and the rest of the world. All those deficits still exist. While Juncker vowed that the E.U. would purchase more soybeans and liquefied natural gas, he can’t command private companies to do that. He doesn’t have the same power the Chinese president does. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether those additional purchases would put much of a dent in the $101 billion trade deficit the United States ran with the E.U. in 2017.
The trade deficit means that U.S. consumers bought more from Europe than vice versa. Trump is focused on bringing the trade deficit down, but the vast majority of economists don’t view it as a problem. The U.S. economy has continued to grow and add jobs despite the long-running deficit.
2. Trump’s metal tariffs are still in place. The carefully worded U.S.-E.U. statement Wednesday says the two sides “want to resolve the steel and aluminum tariff issues." But the fact remains that Trump still has a 25 percent tariff on European steel and a 10 percent tariff on European aluminum. Beyond Europe, Trump’s metals tariffs are still in place on many other countries, including such allies as Canada and Japan.
3. Tariffs are moving forward on China. Europe may have gotten a breather Wednesday, but China did not. Nearly half of the tariffs Trump has put in place so far are on Chinese products (the total is about $37 billion). On top of that, the Trump administration is pushing ahead with tariffs on another $16 billion of Chinese goods and has started the process for tariffs on another $200 billion. In recent days, Trump has repeated threats to put tariffs on all items the United States buys from China (roughly $500 billion). All of this comes as trade talks with the country have stalled.
4. The “deal” with Europe looks odd. This is an agreement to make a deal at some point down the road. And there’s a lot to work out, even on the basics. Trump said Europe would be a “massive buyer of LNG,” but it isn’t clear how that will happen. Liquefying natural gas, shipping it across the Atlantic in special tankers and turning it into gas again is costly. Russia, which has very low gas production and pipeline costs, can easily undercut U.S. LNG. That’s why European facilities for re-gasifying LNG are operating at about a quarter of capacity. And new pipelines will deliver natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Southern Europe and from Russia to Germany. “The United States is putting a ceiling on the price of gas in Europe,” Total chief executive Patrick Pouyanné said in a recent visit to Washington. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into massive sales.
Furthermore, the vows that Trump and Juncker made to work toward zero tariffs and zero subsidies on industrial goods looks a lot like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a deal negotiated by the Obama administration that Trump had previously pushed aside. Is Trump really ready to embrace it now when the only major change is for Europe to buy more soybeans?
5. The auto tariff investigation is moving forward. The E.U. claims that it succeeded in getting Trump to back down on putting auto tariffs on Europe — for now. But that point didn’t make the official statement, and the Trump administration is still moving ahead with its investigation into whether other countries are hurting the United States' “national security” by bringing in so many foreign cars, trucks and parts. The investigation is likely to take several more weeks. By the time it’s done, Trump could easily change his mind. His top economic advisers indicated this week that the president was still keen to put 25 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of autos and parts.
6. Trump has a tendency to go soft, then hard, on trade. The world saw a similar playbook when Trump unveiled the steel and aluminum tariffs in March. Early on, he exempted numerous countries, including the European Union, from the tariffs. Many experts and Wall Street traders saw this as a sign that Trump wasn’t as gung-ho about tariffs as his rhetoric suggested. But they were later stunned when Trump went ahead and put the metals tariffs on U.S. allies June 1.
Trump has also gone hot and cold on China. Remember when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration was putting the tariffs with China “on hold” only to have Trump forge ahead a few days later? Or when Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised each other at a news conference at the Group of Seven summit, and then Trump blasted Trudeau as “meek and mild” after they left? Trump often seems to like to lure people to the table to see what they will offer before hitting them hard again for more.