Winners and losers of the looming trade war between China and the U.S

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While few are suggesting the good outweighs the bad in what’s looking increasingly like a trade war between the world’s two largest economies, that’s not to say there won’t be any individual winners and losers as the battles unfold.

Here’s a look at just a few:

Loser: stock market investors

There’s likely no better barometer of the current trade tensions than the stock market. After staying on a nearly unbroken upward trajectory through 2017, volatility has been the name of the game in stock markets this year.

Gains of more than 20 per cent last year on the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 are down by about half that since the end of January; the tech-laden Nasdaq is down by almost as much. There have been single-day losses in the triple digits this year.

Much of the blame for the slump is being laid at the feet of U.S. President Donald Trump, who loved to take credit for hot markets on the way up. 

Investors don’t like uncertainty — and the world’s two largest economies making it harder and harder for them to do business with each other certainly qualifies. “To paraphrase singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet,” as strategist Mark Grant with investment bank B. Riley FBR put it, “there’s been a change in latitude, so investors must change their attitudes.”

For investors who had perhaps gotten used to double-digit returns, the prospect of a global trade war is serving as a good reminder that markets can sometimes go down, too.

Winner: anyone who wants low interest rates

All this sabre-rattling is definitely pumping the brakes on expectations of higher interest rates. 

Prior to the last Bank of Canada interest rate decision (when the bank opted to stand pat) traders were betting there was about a 40 per cent chance of a rate hike this month. Today the likelihood is barely half that, at 22 per cent. Trade fears aren’t the only factor, but they are clearly playing a role.

And it’s not just Canada. “The [U.S.] Federal Reserve is going to change its tune,” Grant said. “It will not just be investors who have to do an about-face.” 

Loser: the loonie

Against the backdrop of a trade war, it’s reasonable to expect tough times ahead for the loonie. Trade analyst Raoul Leering with Dutch bank ING notes that smaller countries such as Canada and Mexico depend far more on American demand for their products than the other way around. “Canada has much more to lose in a trade war … than the Americans,” he said in a note to clients Wednesday.

The loonie saw a brief surge this week on reports that NAFTA talks have turned optimistic. But the threat of a trade war has pushed it back down, along with the peso, as investors realize there are still risks on the horizon, says Scotiabank economist Derek Holt.

“Which currency gains from trade wars? The currency of the country that started it,” Holt says. And that isn’t Canada.

Winner: some Canadian exporters

It’s entirely possible that Canadians who export products on each country’s verboten list might see some new markets emerge as the two countries build a tariff moat between themselves. After all, it’s not as if the U.S. is suddenly going to need less steel, or China lose its voracious appetite for soybeans — which could benefit people like Dresden, Ont.-based soybean farmer Philip Shaw. 

He thinks there may be future opportunities for farmers to sell to China.

Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, said the Chinese tariffs will be disruptive but he, too, is optimistic that there may be some tiny gains to be had for Canadian growers.

“I think it’ll just cause market confusion and a lot of hassle for the producers to figure out where the products are flowing,” he said. “But I would expect that there would be a shift to markets that don’t have tariffs,” such as Canada, he said.

Loser: everyone

Despite some gains on the margins, the general view is that trade wars are pretty much bad for everybody. “It’s not a good thing, period,” is the blunt assessment from professor Walid Hejazi at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. 

And he thinks Canada could suffer more than most because of how dependent we are on the U.S. economy. 

From softwood lumber to aerospace to supply management, every time Canada has a gripe on trade with the U.S. “we find ourselves hostage to our one big trading partner,” he says. So a trade war “would be terrible for Canada, and terrible for the global economy.”

Farmer and economist Shaw isn’t quite so bleak, but he too would prefer “that everybody could get along,” as he put it. Despite any potential new markets opening, “anything bad for the U.S. is bad for us,” he says. 

Winner: also maybe everyone?

Still, there is a chance — albeit a small one — that escalating trade tensions might turn out to be a good thing in the long term. 

ING’s Leering notes that China has not set a date for implementing the $50 billion in tariffs it slapped on more than 100 U.S. goods. To him, that suggests it may be an empty threat and a negotiating tactic. 

With a trade war looming between the U.S. and China, Canada could have opportunities and risks emerge as the two sides dig in. Jia Wang of the China Institute at the University of Alberta discusses the pros and cons 6:14

“This means they still see room for extending the current negotiations, [and] it is likely that China will, in the end, cut its losses and be willing to give Trump something,” he said.

“The American president is playing a dangerous game but a potentially rewarding one.”

Analyst Dan Flynn with the PRICE Futures Group in Chicago says the reforms the U.S. is pushing for will end up being good for both sides. “You can expect China to not be a Barney Fife and shoot themselves in the foot,” he said.

U.S. demands that China modernize its intellectual-property and foreign-takeover rules are long overdue, Flynn says, and are “big pluses long term.”

“But the media could never admit that, of course, and the majority almost seem as if they want the U.S economy not to succeed … just to be spiteful,” Flynn said in a quip sure to be a favourite of the U.S. president.

While he’s skeptical of an upside, Grant, too, acknowledges that the skirmishes in this trade war might not be all that bad.

“I doubt the Trump administration will allow this trade battle to reach such a fevered pitch,” he said, “but I am concerned just how far President Donald Trump and his Art of the Deal might push things.”



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