President Trump has been talking up the “massive” trade deal he expects to sign with President Xi in November. China, he said, will soon be “buying much more farm products than anybody thought possible.”
But is this true?
The latest news from China indicates that it will “aim” to buy $20 billion in U.S. farm goods in the first year of an initial deal. It also says that such purchases “could” eventually rise as high as $40-50 billion. Trump is hailing the latter suggestion as an “incredible deal for farmers,” though he fails to note that the numbers have no empirical or analytical basis and are premised on his repealing all his punitive tariffs—that is, ending the trade war.
So is the U.S. now really “winning,” as Trump likes to say?
Let us focus first on what China actually has on the table: an offer to buy $20 billion in ag goods in return for Trump killing his planned October tariff increase, from 25% to 30%, on $250 billion in imports, as well as abandoning new 15% tariffs on a further $112 billion in imports scheduled for December. Is this a good deal?
The right way to evaluate China’s offer is to ask how much U.S. farmers would have exported to China in 2020 had Trump never started his trade war. In the graphic above, the dotted blue line projects such sales by assuming that, after 2017, China’s purchase volumes of each type of agricultural good would, absent Trump’s trade war, have continued growing at the rates seen since 2010. As the yellow marker highlights, China’s 2020 purchases would have exceeded $27 billion. That is, China would have bought over $7 billion more than what it is now offering. And this is a conservative estimate, given that the projections assume prices stay fixed at last year’s trade-war-depressed levels.
As regards China’s tease that a complete end to the trade war could push its U.S. ag purchases up to $40-50 billion, this is wholly implausible. As the dashed line above shows, Chinese ag imports before the trade war had barely been on pace to reach $30 billion by 2022.
In short, if Trump accepts what he is calling a “massive” deal with China, he will actually be leaving American farmers at least $7 billion worse off than they would have been without his policies. As for China’s hints of a far-off bonanza for U.S. farmers, these should be taken with a grain of soybean.