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Making Sen$e

Who is winning the U.S.-China trade war? Look at the stock markets

Guess who is winning the tariff war. China? The U.S.? Neither?

Well, one way to look at the results since President Donald Trump fired the first salvo in March is to compare the performance of the rivals’ stock markets since that day.

Using the Dow Jones Industrial Average and China’s Shanghai Composite Index, here are the results.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

Since the first tariffs against China went into effect, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up about 370 points.

Since the first tariffs against China went into effect, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up about 370 points.

The Dow is up about 370 points, a rise of about 1.5 percent. Subtract a half a year’s worth of inflation, and it’s up about 1 percent.

What about China’s Shanghai index?

Shanghai Index

China’s Shanghai index is down 30 percent since Trump imposed the first start of tariffs in March.

China’s Shanghai index is down 30 percent since Trump imposed the first start of tariffs in March.

Hmm. Down a whopping 30 percent, adjusting for inflation.

Of course, many factors beside trade plausibly affect share prices in both countries. China’s economy has been slowing, and that may be irrespective of trade.

As economist Martin Baily, who ran President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, suggests in an email, rates of return to manufacturing companies have been declining; investors have been reacting accordingly. Robert Glauber, who help run the Treasury Department under George H. W. Bush, adds that investors may be responding to the increasingly (and increasingly discussed) fragility of the Chinese banking system.

So perhaps not all of the market decline in China can be pinned on the trade war. But in the long run, stock prices reflect the expected profitability of the companies whose ownership they represent.

In China, far more of those companies are dependent on trade than in the U.S. To the extent trade is a factor, those expectations have dropped massively in China since the beginning of the standoff.

So who is winning? Thus far: America, even if some farmers and manufacturers are feeling the pinch. And if you think in relative terms, the U.S. is an even bigger winner.

One economic rationale was to punish China for past trade transgressions like stealing intellectual property as a way to encourage them to play by the rules. Punishment seems to be what China is getting.

The other rationale, of course: to Make America Great Again. How better to do that than put China in its place? As economic historian Adam Tooze told me shortly after Trump’s election, if there’s one country in the world that can more nearly go it alone, it’s ours. And for the moment, the data seem to bear him out.

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