(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Everything is awesome in financial markets.
The sense that a trade deal may finally be on the cards sent stocks and crude soaring in the U.S. Thursday, while flight-to-safety trades such as bonds and gold slumped. Both sides seem to be moving toward a phase one agreement that would involve jointly reducing tariffs in return for vaguer concessions on the underlying issues.
“If there’s a phase one trade deal, there are going to be tariff agreements and concessions,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Bloomberg.
“If China, U.S. reach a phase-one deal, both sides should roll back existing additional tariffs,” China’s Ministry of Commerce spokesman Gao Feng said earlier.
There’s a laconic warning buried inside both of those statements: “If.”
It’s certainly possible that President Donald Trump is tiring of the trade war and as desperate to get an agreement on the table as Beijing seems to think. But the current febrile atmosphere appears to have left the fundamentals of this dispute behind. A single tweet from @realdonaldtrump could be enough to puncture the party mood.
Consider some of the things you might expect to be seeing if a significant agreement was really in the works. China is well aware of the importance of the bilateral trade deficit in Washington, and one of the most promising areas for any agreement is to sharply increase imports of American agricultural and mineral products.
Yet China's biggest oil producer, state-owned PetroChina Co., is behaving as if the opposite plan is underway. In results last week, the company reported its trailing 12-month capital spending rose to the highest level since 2014, thanks to a government push to lessen China’s dependence on imported fuel.
PetroChina’s returns on invested capital are already the worst of the oil majors, and pressure to extract more oil and gas from China’s unpromising geology will make that situation worse. A country that was serious about balancing out the trade relationship with the U.S. and making the most productive use of state companies’ cash would be looking for ways to tap America’s energy boom instead.
It’s a similar case with agriculture. China could increase its imports of poultry, beef, pork and other products by as much as $53 billion just by removing current constraints on trade, according to a study last year by Minghao Li, Wendong Zhang and Dermot Hayes of Iowa State University.
If anything, that’s probably low-balling it: You could add $10 billion to the total just by taking soybean imports back to where they were before the current round of trade tensions cut that trade close to zero.
One only needs to look at China’s trade data released Friday to see that the opposite is happening. The surplus with the U.S. may be narrowing, but on a global, trailing 12-month basis it was the widest it’s been since May 2017. Part of that is simply the weakness of domestic demand. But hosting jazzy import conferences won’t change the fact that President Xi Jinping’s praise of zili gengsheng, or self-reliance, is just as pointed a retreat from trade as Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra.
All this comes before even touching on issues around intellectual property, technology transfer and state involvement in the economy, which were ostensibly the reasons for this trade war in the first place. China continues to make quiet progress on the first front as if the trade war wasn’t happening; and formal technology transfer is shrinking, too, although stories of outright industrial espionage abound. On the third point, the Chinese state is, if anything, becoming an even more dominant economic actor than it was hitherto.
What about this backdrop makes a deal seem so imminent? Beijing appears unlikely to make the sorts of concessions on the main issues under contention that would allow Trump to present an agreement as a personal victory. Trump, for his part, is presiding over a stock market that — thanks in part to all the optimism about a trade deal — hits fresh records every day, giving him no incentive to sign on to a deal that looks like a climb-down.
Right now, markets are behaving as if the whole structure of trade impediments built up over the past two years could start getting dismantled within weeks. It’s quite as likely that, in the white heat of a breakdown, the levies suspended last month are reinstated, only to be followed by the final round still due to kick in Dec. 15. Should that come about, the current exuberance could turn into a hangover awfully quick.
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David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.
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