It is hard to find any good economic arguments for protectionism. Economists have known this at least since Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations in 1776. That, however, has not stopped president-elect Donald Trump putting forward his protectionist agenda.
At the core of Trump’s protectionist thinking is the idea that trade is essentially a zero sum game. Contrary to conventional economic thinking, which sees trade as mutual beneficial Trump talks about trade in terms of winners and losers. This means that Trump essentially has a Mercantilist ideology, where the wealth of a nation can be measured on how much the country exports relative to its imports.
Therefore, we should expect the Trump administration to pay particularly attention to the US trade deficit and if the trade deficit grows Trump is likely to blame countries like Mexico and China for that.
The Yellen-Trump policy mix will cause the trade deficit to balloon
The paradox is that Trump’s own policies – particularly the announced major tax cuts and large government infrastructure investments – combined with the Federal Reserve’s likely response to the fiscal expansion (higher interest rates) in itself is likely to cause the US trade deficit to balloon.
Hence, a fiscal expansion will cause domestic demand to pick up, which in turn will increase imports. Furthermore, we have already seen the dollar rally on the back of the election Donald Trump as markets are pricing in more aggressive interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve to curb the “Trumpflationary” pressures.
The strengthening of the dollar will further erode US competitiveness and further add to the worsening the US trade balance.
Add to that, that the strengthen of the dollar and the fears of US protectionist policies already have caused most Emerging Markets currencies – including the Chinese renminbi and the Mexican peso – to weaken against the US dollar.
The perfect excuse
Donald Trump has already said he wants the US Treasury Department to brand China a currency manipulator because he believes that China is keeping the renminbi artificial weak against the dollar to gain an “unfair” trade advantage against the US.
And soon he will have the “evidence” – the US trade deficit is ballooning, Chinese exports to the US are picking up steam and the renminbi continues to weaken. However, any economist would of course know that, that is not a result of China’s currency policies, but rather a direct consequence of Trumponomics more specifically the planed fiscal expansion, but Trump is unlikely to listen to that.
There is a clear echo from the 1980s here. Reagan’s tax cuts and the increase in military spending also caused a ‘double deficit’ – a larger budget deficit and a ballooning trade deficit and even though Reagan was certainly not a protectionist in the same way as Trump is he nonetheless bowed to domestic political pressures and to the pressures American exporters and during his time in offices and numerous import quotas and tariffs were implemented mainly to curb US imports from Japan. Unfortunately, it looks like Trump is very eager to copies these failed policies.
Finally, it should be noted that in 1985 we got the so-called Plaza Accord, which essentially forced the Japanese to allow the yen to strengthen dramatically (and the dollar to weaken). The Plaza Accord undoubtedly was a contributing factor to Japan’s deflationary crisis, which essentially have lasted to this day. One can only fear that a new Plaza Accord, which will strengthen the renminbi and cause the Chinese economy to fall into crisis is Trump’s wet dream.