How Will Ongoing China Trade Tensions Tensions Impact Consumer Spending?

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Census Bureau, retail sales came in at a negative 0.3 percent for September, even though it’s still 4.1 percent more than September 2018’s report. The same report followed up on August 2019’s numbers, with a revision by the agency to 0.6 percent, up from 0.4 percent. With the ongoing U.S.-China trade war and tariff uncertainty, how will consumer spending be impacted?

Current State of Trade and Tariffs

With phase one agreed to, at least in principle, at the end of the meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu on Oct. 11, President Trump agreed to keep tariffs at 25 percent on $250 billion in Chinese imports, instead of increasing the tariffs to 30 percent. Additional tariffs also are threatened to be imposed on Dec. 15 for other goods, depending on future negotiations. However, by then the fourth quarter will be nearly completed, so this will probably lessen the likelihood of reduced U.S. consumer spending during the holiday shopping season.

According to an Oct. 3 press release, the National Retail Federation (NRF) projects that consumer purchases for the 2019 holiday season will come in between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion. The current holiday spending is projected to grow between 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent compared to 2018. It’s important to note that the NRF’s 2019 projections don’t include restaurants, auto dealerships or gas stations. And the projections are higher despite an average retail sales growth of 3.7 percent over the past five years.

The NRF says that along with interest rate and global economic concerns and a politicizing of the economy, trade is an equally concerning factor for retail sales.   

As the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) announced an additional 10 percent of tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports, effective Sept. 1, the NRF explained that consumer confidence was shaken. A September 2019 NRF survey found that 79 percent of retail shoppers were worried that tariffs will increase the prices of goods they would be buying.

With the USTR reporting on Aug. 23 that $112 billion of Chinese imports will face tariffs of 15 percent, up from 10 percent, on Sept. 1, the NRF explains how it impacts consumer items, especially footwear and apparel. The NRF gives a few examples of how consumers, specifically football fans, will be impacted negatively.

Footballs made in China are now subject to 15 percent tariffs, no longer 10 percent. While sweatshirts, T-shirts and jerseys (for football and all professional sports teams made in China), are subject to a 15 percent tariff – this is still a sizeable cost increase. If these were subject to 25 percent tariffs, research by the Trade Partnership done for the NRF found that it would cost U.S. consumers $4.4 billion extra for this type of apparel.

While it hasn’t happened yet, the $160 billion of Chinese imports currently subject to 10 percent tariffs are expected to be increased to a 15 percent tariff on Dec. 15. While it’s still expected to be implemented at the tail end of Q4, any effects will naturally be felt in 2020.

While there’s no way to determine how tariffs will impact retail sales officially calculated, consumers will certainly take a second look at prices whether or not they make a purchase.

Will China’s Recent Soybean Purchase Begin Thawing the Trade War?

With the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service announcing a purchase of 204,000 metric tons of U.S. soybeans by private Chinese importers, there are hopes that the trade war is beginning to dissipate.

Seeing that the last significant purchase of U.S. soybeans by China was in June, professional traders see the September acquisitions as a potential weakening of the U.S.-China trade war. With the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service announcing more than 600,000 tons of U.S. soybeans purchased by private Chinese operators on Sept. 13, 16 and 17, there are signs of positive movement between the two nations.

The shipments are expected to leave between October and December from ports in the Pacific Northwest. Looking at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, soybean futures hit monthly highs on Sept. 16. Coupled with November futures contracts well off their lows, this shows renewed promise. The purchase of soybeans is part of China’s gesture of goodwill to buy other agricultural products, such as pork, during ongoing trade negotiations.

These recent developments are important because China increased tariffs on American soybeans by 25 percent in July 2018 in response to the Trump Administration’s tariffs. On Sept. 1, 2019, U.S. soybeans were subject to another 5 percent in import tariffs by China.

The Context of Soybean Sales

Based on data from the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), there was a drop in soy exports from the U.S. to China to $3.1 billion, or 18 percent of U.S. soybean exports for 2018.

The 2018 U.S. soybean export figure to China represents a drop of 75 percent, compared to 2017’s U.S. sales exports of soybeans worth $12.2 billion to China. The large drop in 2018 is also noteworthy against U.S. exports of soybeans to China in 2016 of $10.5 billion. This drop was directly attributable to trade tensions.

It’s important to note that soybeans are America’s biggest agricultural export (16 percent of all agricultural exports) – $20.9 billion annually on average between 2014 and 2018. With China importing more than 50 percent of U.S. soy over the past 60 months, it illustrates why the trade war has been so impactful. In response to the sharp drop in exports to China, 2018 began the quest for U.S. growers of soybeans to counteract the $9.1 billion drop in soy exports to China by finding new buyers in Mexico, the European Union and Egypt.

Similarly, as the Congressional Research Service points out, trade talks are working toward building upon an existing $12.9 billion of U.S. agricultural exports to Japan, as of 2018. Current talks have expectations for an additional $7 billion in U.S. agricultural exports to Japan. Soybeans, along with dairy, wine, beef and pork, are examples of agricultural imports Japan is willing to buy, based on soon-to-be released details from finalized U.S.-Japanese trade talks.  

However, despite maintaining a competitive or even subpar price against competitor nations such as Brazil, it didn’t sway the Chinese to buy more American soy. Much like American farmers and with China’s state-influenced help, there may be long-term, structural changes for future Chinese soybean purchases even if trade tensions subside. However, China also has established new suppliers of soybeans from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia.

While many do expect a trade deal between the United States and China, there could very well be structural and long-lasting changes on how both countries conduct trade for years to come.

How Will Tariff Developments Impact the Stock Market Going Forward?

According to an Aug. 13 press release from the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), there will be a 10 percent tariff levied against $300 billion of Chinese imports effective Sept. 1. The same press release announced a modification, after hearing from the public and business owners, exempting some of the $300 billion in Chinese imports from the 10 percent tariff until Dec. 15.

Items Subject to the 10 Percent Tariff on Sept. 1

Highlights from the USTR’s list include select types of coffee, fruit, vegetables, insects and bees. Along with dairy products, livestock such as sheep, horses and goats are subject to the 10 percent tariff.

Items Subject to the 10 Percent Tariff on Dec. 15

The USTR pointed out that many of the items recently exempted include consumer goods such as computer displays, select shoes and clothes, LED lamps, slide projectors and playing cards. Other items on the list include notebooks, video game systems, toys, snowshoes and parts, fishing rods and reels, paint rollers and microwave ovens.

2019 Forecast

When it comes to industry experts and associations, it looks like there will be limited impacts from the trade spat between the United States and China, coupled with pressure from government shutdown in the beginning of the year. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), 2019 is expected to see an increase in spending between 3.8 percent and 4.4 percent – or more than $3.8 trillion.

Initial figures per the NRF detail that retail sales for 2018 increased by 4.6 percent, outpacing the organization’s growth expectations of 4.5 percent. 2018’s figures are compared to 2017’s of $3.68 trillion in retail sales. 2018’s estimates factor in a 10 percent to 12 percent increase in online sales, which is also expected for 2019. One caveat for these projections by the NRF is that it doesn’t include dining, gas stations or auto dealers. GDP is expected to grow about 2.5 percent over 2019.

The NRF explained that due to lower energy costs, specifically tame retail gas prices and low interest rates, there should be minimal negative consumer impact. However, the NRF cautions that while the retail industry has been able to cushion the 10 percent tariffs, if tariffs increase to 25 percent, it will have a greater impact on consumers’ costs and retailers’ profitability.

Based upon recent developments, business earnings will face greater challenges. According to the United States Trade Representative’s Aug. 23 press release, tariff rates for $250 billion worth of Chinese imports currently subject to a 25 percent tariff rate will increase to 30 percent effective Oct. 1. For the $300 billion in Chinese imports described above, those going into effect Sept. 1 and Dec. 15, instead of being subjected to a 10 percent tariff, each batch will be subject to a 15 percent tariff rate.

With the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasting a drop in the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 by 2020, Daniel Fried explains that there’s no doubt the U.S.-China trade tensions have and will take a toll on the economy. Fried explains how they’ll affect consumer spending and business expenditures:

  • The initial impact is that consumers and businesses will have a lowered purchasing power.
  • The next impact is that businesses will either slow or decide to divert investments elsewhere, such as realigning their supply chains to mitigate the tariff impacts.
  • There’s also concern that while businesses may lose international business, that might be offset by domestic consumption.

With Fried and the CBO projecting the mean income for households will be reduced by $580 by 2020, based on 2019 purchasing power, it’ll certainly make consumers think twice about where and how to allocate their spending. This will likely take a toll on companies’ sales figures and likely future earnings reports.