Stocks sank after the White House denied a report that President Trump had directed aides to draw up a deal to resolve the escalating trade conflict with China.
The Dow Jones industrial average jumped nearly 200 points in early trading before surrendering those gains and sinking an additional 300 points. The benchmark index declined almost 110 points, a 0.4 percent loss.
Investors were cheered earlier by a Bloomberg News report that Trump had directed his aides to flesh out a bargain for him to bring to his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping later this month at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. That report came after Trump said in a Thursday morning tweet that he had a “long and very good conversation” with Xi that included a “heavy emphasis on trade.”
Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, disappointed investors Friday by denying that Trump had directed any new action. “There’s no massive movement to deal with China,” Kudlow told CNBC. “ . . . We’re not on the cusp of a deal.”
Michael Pillsbury, a China expert at the Hudson Institute and occasional White House adviser, also said talk of a potential deal was exaggerated. “Friends in the White House tell me President Trump still wants the Chinese to make the initial offer and that it better be sincere and comprehensive,” Pillsbury wrote in an email.
Even comments made late afternoon by the president suggesting that unspecified progress has been made with the Chinese were not enough to rescue the market from its latest decline. “We’re getting very much closer to doing something,” Trump told reporters before leaving the White House for a campaign rally in West Virginia. “They very much want to make a deal.”
Still, the two leaders will confront a long list of tough issues when they meet. Since Trump began imposing tariffs on Chinese imports several months ago, the United States has broadened its complaints about Chinese behavior to include its military buildup and the treatment of religious minorities in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1 million people have been forcibly confined to political reeducation camps.
Fresh trade data on Friday, meanwhile, showed that Trump has made no progress on his campaign to narrow the U.S. trade deficit. Through September, the United States imported $445.2 billion more goods and services than it sold abroad, up from a $404.4 billion deficit during the same period in 2017.
As importers rushed to beat the scheduled Jan. 1 increase in U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, the monthly goods deficit in September with China rose to $37.4 billion, up $3 billion from the previous month. Through the first nine months of the year, the United States has incurred a $301.4 billion deficit with China, up 10 percent over the same time last year.
On Thursday, the Justice Department unsealed the latest in a series of spying charges against Chinese companies and individuals. The unusual slew of indictments are meant to be a stern warning to Beijing about pilfering U.S. tech secrets that, beyond the trade imbalance, illustrate Washington’s grievances about Chinese commercial behavior.
In a lengthy readout published by Chinese state media, Xi said he was “very happy” to talk to Trump and attached “great importance to the good relations with the president.”
The Chinese assessment also betrayed frustration with the on-again, off-again nature of negotiations between Washington and Beijing. “China sees the U.S. administration under Trump as inconsistent and untrustworthy,” wrote analysts at Trivium, an economic consultancy in Beijing.
Many analysts were skeptical that anything fundamental had changed in the U.S.-China standoff. There has been no indication, for instance, that Xi is willing to abandon the “Made in China 2025” program of state subsidies aimed at securing Chinese dominance in advanced technology industries. China will host an import fair in Shanghai next week that Xi said will demonstrate Beijing’s commitment to “increase imports and expand openness,” according to the Chinese readout.
The proximity of Trump’s sudden warming toward China and Tuesday’s congressional elections also drew comment. In recent days, as Republicans confront the possibility of losing their majority in the House of Representatives, Trump has unveiled a flurry of high-profile initiatives — including a promised middle-class tax cut and a military deployment to the southern border — designed to woo his voters.
“There is good reason to be skeptical of this kumbaya moment,” analyst Chris Krueger of the Cowen Washington Research Group wrote in a research note Friday.
Xi is expected to make a major speech at the convention’s opening Monday, where he could potentially discuss his vision for further market-access reforms or the government’s role in steering industries — other areas in which Washington and U.S. businesses are demanding more Chinese concessions.
After months of fitful negotiations through intermediaries and lower-level officials, U.S. and Chinese officials hope that a meeting of the two presidents on the sidelines of the Buenos Aires summit will yield a breakthrough.
The months-long spat has weighed on worldwide markets at politically crucial junctures for both presidents: Trump faces a key midterm test Tuesday, while Xi has been navigating economic head winds and growing middle-class anxieties.
Kudlow said at a Washington Post Live event earlier Thursday that he was not sure that trade would be discussed when the two presidents meet in Argentina but confirmed that the two men will sit down.
“The agenda is being discussed and worked on in both camps,” Kudlow said. “I think it will include trade, but I’m not 100 percent sure.”
It is unclear how the progress in high-level talks will affect a new U.S. push to confront China on other thorny aspects of the trade relationship. Federal prosecutors have accused Chinese companies and individuals of spying in three cases in the past two months and pledged more to come this week.
Hours after Trump’s tweet, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the indictments are part of a new initiative to beef up the Justice Department’s “strategic priority of countering Chinese national security threats.”
The department unveiled an indictment Thursday accusing Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit, a Chinese state-owned semiconductor company, of conspiring to steal secrets from the Idaho-based chipmaker Micron.
Earlier this week, prosecutors unveiled charges against Chinese intelligence officers who they said conspired to hack into aviation firms to obtain engine designs on behalf of China’s jetliner industry.
Shih reported from Hong Kong and Lynch reported from Washington