Signs of Growing Trade Tensions and Potential for Friction

It is becoming easier and easier to find signs of trade tensions and potential for friction. On Tuesday’s post I already mentioned the fact that South Korea had shifted from deficits to surpluses, and that Vietnam had devalued the dong as a reaction to falling exports. Yesterday’s Financial Times has the kind of article I expect to see a lot more of in the coming months:

Western countries should close their markets to sales of Chinese trains because China’s domestic market is closing to outside suppliers, says the head of one of the world’s largest rolling stock builders. In a Financial Times interview, Philippe Mellier, chief executive of Paris-based Alstom Transport, also claimed that Chinese companies were offering trains for export using technology derived from western suppliers. Such technology is usually supplied on condition it not be used outside China. The comments by Mr Mellier, whose company is the world’s number two trainmaker, underline the growing tension in the world’s train-building industry over China’s role.

A recent Washington Post article listed a number of trade-related measures:

Only a few weeks after world leaders vowed at a Washington summit to reject trade protectionism and adhere to free-market principles as they combat the global financial crisis, a host of nations are already breaking that promise.

Moving to shield battered domestic manufacturers from foreign imports, Indonesia is slapping restrictions on at least 500 products this month, demanding special licenses and new fees on imports. Russia is hiking tariffs on imported cars, poultry and pork. France is launching a state fund to protect French companies from foreign takeovers. Officials in Argentina and Brazil are seeking to raise tariffs on products from imported wine and textiles to leather goods and peaches, according to the World Trade organization.

At the same time The Wall Street Journal had a related article with a conflicting message:

The U.S. current account deficit narrowed more than expected in the third quarter as a broad gain in exports outstripped the rise in imports. The current account deficit decreased to $174.1 billion during the July through September period, from a downwardly revised $180.9 billion in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. The second-quarter deficit was originally reported as $183.1 billion.

Obviously enough if the US current account deficit decline – about 90% of which is the trade in goods and services – other countries current account surpluses must also decline. Continuing on that subject Brad Setser has a post today in his blog on the subject:

China’s export sector hasn’t experienced a sharp cyclical downturn in a long time. In 2001 global trade did contract. But that contraction didn’t hit China all that hard. It came at a time when the electronics industry was migrating to China, allowing China to increase its share of a shrinking global market. Year-over-year export growth slowed from 25% at the peak of the .com boom in 2000 to 5% — but it didn’t turn negative. In dollar terms, the y/y increase in a rolling 12m sum of China’s exports went from $50b to $15-20b. But y/y exports never fell in dollar terms.

But China now is a much much bigger share of global trade. China’s 2008 exports — in dollar terms — will be more than five times large than its 2000 exports. That means that China is now far more exposed to the global economic cycle than it was. And this cycle looks brutal.

Korea is reporting its biggest drop in industrial production in twenty-one years. That is the kind of data point that gets my attention. I was a bit surprised to hear that the current fall is sharper than the fall that accompanied Korea’s own crisis in 97/98.

The whole Korean story has been an interesting one which I have been watching peripherally with great interest. The collapse in Korean export was a real warning signal for China because one of the few export areas for China that held up until recently had been sales of machinery and capital goods, but those have always been important areas for Korean exports and the very weak demand for Korean machinery boded ill for China.

There is not much else to report since today most things in China were closed, including the stock market. The last time I mentioned the stock market was on December 9, when the SSE Composite had traded up sharply the day before to close at 2091. Since then it has declined pretty steadily, with only five up days, to close yesterday at 1821, down 12.9% albeit on very thin volume. We are racing towards Chinese New Year and I suspect everyone is eager to put the Year of the Rat behind them. It is the first year in the cycle and is supposed to be a time of hard work and renewal. It ends in three weeks and will be followed by the Year of the Ox, which symbolizes prosperity through fortitude. We’ll see — fortitude will probably be necessary.

About Michael Pettis 166 Articles

Affiliation: Peking University

Michael Pettis is a professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets. He has also taught, from 2002 to 2004, at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management and, from 1992 to 2001, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

Pettis has worked on Wall Street in trading, capital markets, and corporate finance since 1987, when he joined the Sovereign Debt trading team at Manufacturers Hanover (now JP Morgan). Most recently, from 1996 to 2001, Pettis worked at Bear Stearns, where he was Managing Director-Principal heading the Latin American Capital Markets and the Liability Management groups.

Visit: China Financial Markets

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