As tariff hike looms, China asks U.S. to meet it halfway, denies backtracking

FILE PHOTO: Chinese and U.S. flags are set up for a meeting during a visit by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao at China's Ministry of Transport in Beijing, China April 27, 2018. Picture taken April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

By Yawen Chen and Se Young Lee

BEIJING (Reuters) – China appealed to the United States to meet it halfway to salvage a deal that could end their trade war, with its chief negotiator in Washington for two days of talks hoping to stave off U.S. tariff hikes set to be triggered on Friday.

The two sides had appeared to be converging on a deal until last weekend when U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to raise tariffs with his negotiators saying that China was backtracking on earlier commitments.

“The U.S. side has given many labels recently, ‘backtracking’, ‘betraying’ etc…China sets great store on trustworthiness and keeps its promises, and this has never changed,” Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng said on Thursday.

Gao told reporters in Beijing that it was normal for both sides to have disagreements during the negotiating process.

Trump told supporters at a rally in Florida on Wednesday that China “broke the deal”, and vowed not to back down on imposing new tariffs on Chinese imports unless Beijing “stops cheating our workers”.

A protracted trade war between the world’s two largest economies would damage global economic growth, and investors pulled their money out of stock markets this week amid fears of the prospective agreement unraveling.

Gao said the decision to send the delegation led by Vice Premier Liu He to Washington despite the tariff threat demonstrated China’s “utmost sincerity”.

“We hope the U.S. can meet China halfway, take care of each others’ concerns, and resolve existing problems through cooperation and consultations,” he said.

Gao urged the United States to eschew unilateral action, while warning China was fully prepared to defend its interests.

“China’s attitude has been consistent and China will not succumb to any pressure. China has made preparations to respond to all kinds of possible outcomes.” He did not elaborate.

U.S. government and private sector sources previously told Reuters that a draft trade agreement was riddled with reversals by China that undermined core U.S. demands.

In each of the seven chapters of the draft, China had deleted its commitments to change laws to resolve core complaints that caused the United States to launch a trade war: Theft of U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets; forced technology transfers; competition policy; access to financial services; and currency manipulation.

The stripping of binding legal language from the draft struck directly at the highest priority of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer – who views changes to Chinese laws as essential to verifying compliance after years of what U.S. officials have called empty reform promises.

U.S. TARIFFS

Lighthizer’s office said tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods would rise to 25 percent from 10 percent at 12:01 a.m. (0401 GMT) on Friday, during the discussions in Washington.

The tariffs would target chemicals, building materials, furniture and some consumer electronics among other goods.

Trump also threatened on Sunday to levy tariffs on an additional $325 billion of China’s goods, on top of the $250 billion of its products already hit by import taxes.

Since July last year, China has cumulatively imposed counter-tariffs of up to 25 percent on about $110 billion of U.S. products. It last levied tariffs, of 5 percent to 10 percent, on $60 billion of U.S. goods including liquefied natural gas and small aircraft in September.

Based on 2018 U.S. Census Bureau trade data, China would only have about $10 billion in U.S. imports left to levy in retaliation for any future U.S. tariffs, including crude oil and large aircraft.

Gao did not answer directly when asked if China would consider imposing tariffs on imported U.S services.

While the United States wants to reduce the scale of its trade deficit with China, it is also seeking stronger protection for American intellectual property and more market access in China for U.S. companies.

Gao described accusations about Chinese firms stealing tech secrets as unreasonable and said they were not based on facts.

STRONG MENTALITY

Chinese state media on Thursday published and aired reports quoting U.S.-based organizations and individuals critical of Trump’s decision to raise tariffs, though playing down the impact of higher U.S. tariffs on the Chinese economy.

“China is well-prepared for an escalation in trade tensions. A variety of plans are in place, such as countermeasures for any tariff rise, and favorable policies to minimize losses for Chinese enterprises,” the Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said in an editorial.

“Mentally and materially, China is much better prepared than its U.S. counterpart.”

The country’s share markets have taken a battering due to the renewed trade tensions, however.

China’s blue-chip CSI300 index has slumped about 7 percent so far in May while in the United States, the benchmark S&P 500 index has only declined about 2 percent.

The Chinese yuan has also weakened to a four-month low, crossing the 6.80 per dollar level.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

While China’s overall economic growth has remained steady so far this year, the outlook for exporters has been challenging.

Exports unexpectedly declined in April, with some analysts attributing the drop to slumping shipments to the United States.

U.S.-bound shipments fell more than 13 percent last month, according to official data released this week.

But imports from the United States declined by even more – almost 26 percent, widening China’s trade surplus with the United States.

The U.S. Commerce Department said on Thursday the politically sensitive goods trade deficit with China fell 16.2 percent to $20.7 billion, the lowest level since March 2014, also as imports from the world’s No. 2 economy fell 6.1 percent. Exports to China jumped 23.6 percent in March.

“For months, U.S. companies and agricultural producers and their respective trade associations have desperately urged the two sides to come to some kind of trade agreement that would prevent the further use of tariffs by both countries, fearing such a scenario would cripple their already-damaged bilateral trading relationship,” said Nelson Dong, senior partner at international law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

“However, those urgent pleas seem to have been ignored. Once again, the two countries, and indeed, the entire world’s economy will be forced into a crisis mode that will likely inflict enormous losses on many individual companies and many thousands of workers and farmers in both countries.”

(Reporting by Yawen Chen and Se Young Lee; Writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore/Mark Heinrich)

U.S. trade deficit hits eight-month low as Chinese imports drop

FILE PHOTO: A container ship is shown at port in Long Beach, California, U.S. July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. trade deficit fell to an eight-month low in February as imports from China plunged, suggesting President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda was starting to bear fruit.

The surprise narrowing in the trade gap reported by the Commerce Department on Wednesday also implied a much stronger pace of U.S. economic growth in the first quarter than initially anticipated at the start of the year.

The 20.2 percent drop in imports from China was the main driver behind a nearly 3.4 percent improvement in the U.S. trade deficit to $49.4 billion, data from the Commerce Department showed. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the trade shortfall would widen to $53.5 billion in February.

The politically sensitive goods trade deficit with China – a focus of the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy – decreased 28.2 percent to $24.8 billion in February as U.S. exports to the world’s No. 2 economy jumped 18.2 percent.

But even with the improvement, the trade deficit remains large and February’s drop in Chinese imports could be temporary. The trade data have been volatile in recent months amid big swings between exports and imports, because of the United States’ conflicts with trading partners, including China.

Washington last year imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods imported from China, with Beijing retaliating with duties on $110 billion worth of American products. Trump has delayed tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports and talks to end the trade impasse continue.

The U.S. goods trade deficit declined 1.7 percent to $72.0 billion in February, also the lowest level since last June.

When adjusted for inflation, the overall goods trade deficit fell $1.8 billion to $81.8 billion in February. The average goods trade deficit for January and February is below the fourth-quarter average. This suggests that trade could provide a boost to gross domestic product in the first quarter after being neutral in the October-December period.

SLOWING DOMESTIC DEMAND

Growth estimates for the January-March quarter are in a 1.5 percent to 2.3 percent annualized range, largely reflecting an accumulation of inventories amid slowing domestic demand. The economy grew at a 2.2 percent rate in the fourth quarter, slowing from the July-September period’s brisk 3.4 percent pace.

U.S. Treasury yields rose slightly after the release of the data. U.S. stock index futures were trading higher while the dollar was largely unchanged against a basket of currencies.

The trade deficit in February was pushed down by a 1.1 percent jump in exports to $209.7 billion. Exports of services were the highest on record.

Goods exports increased 1.5 percent to $139.5 billion in February. The surge in goods exports is a hopeful sign for global economic growth, which has showed signs of slowing in recent months.

Exports of motor vehicles and parts increased by $0.6 billion in February. Shipments of civilian aircraft soared by $2.2 billion in February. But commercial aircraft exports are likely to decline in the months ahead following Boeing’s decision to suspend deliveries of its troubled 737 MAX aircraft.

The MAX planes have been grounded indefinitely following two deadly crashes.

There was a modest increase in soybean exports.

In February, imports rose 0.2 percent to $259.1 billion. Consumer goods imports increased by $1.6 billion in February, led by a $2.1 billion rise in imports of cellphones and other household goods. Imports of industrial supplies and materials fell by $1.2 billion. Capital goods imports rose slightly.

Crude oil imports fell to 173.7 million barrels, the lowest since March 1992, from 223.1 million barrels in January. An increase in domestic production has seen the United States become less dependent on foreign oil.

Imported oil prices averaged $46.89 per barrel in February, up from $42.59 in January.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. job growth jumps; annual wage gain largest since 2009

People wait in line at a stand during the Executive Branch Job Fair hosted by the Conservative Partnership Institute at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth rebounded sharply in October and wages recorded their largest annual gain in 9-1/2 years, pointing to further labor market tightening that could encourage the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates again in December.

The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday also showed the unemployment rate steady at a 49-year low of 3.7 percent as 711,000 people entered the labor force, in a sign of confidence in the jobs market.

Sustained labor market strength could ease fears about the economy’s health following weak housing data and stalling business spending. President Donald Trump cheered the robust report, which came less than a week before the midterm elections that will decide who controls the U.S. Congress.

“These are incredible numbers,” Trump tweeted.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 250,000 jobs last month as employment in the leisure and hospitality sector bounced back after being held down by Hurricane Florence, which drenched North and South Carolina in mid-September.

There were also big gains in manufacturing, construction and professional and business services payrolls. Data for September was revised to show 118,000 jobs added instead of the previously reported 134,000.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls increasing by 190,000 jobs in October and the unemployment rate unchanged at 3.7 percent. The Labor Department said Hurricane Michael, which struck the Florida Panhandle in mid-October, “had no discernible effect on the national employment and unemployment estimates for October.”

Average hourly earnings rose five cents, or 0.2 percent, in October after advancing 0.3 percent in September. That boosted the annual increase in wages to 3.1 percent, the biggest gain since April 2009, from 2.8 percent in September.

Employers also increased hours for workers last month. The average workweek increased to 34.5 hours from 34.4 hours in September.

“The report shows a booming U.S. economy with a sufficient whiff of wage inflation to keep the Fed on track to raise rates in December and at least twice next year,” said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds in New York.

Strong annual wage growth mirrors other data published this week showing wages and salaries rising in the third quarter by the most since mid-2008. Hourly compensation also increased at a brisk pace in the third quarter.

Firming wages support views that inflation will hover around the Fed’s 2.0 percent target for a while. The personal consumption expenditures price index excluding the volatile food and energy components, which is the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, has increased by 2.0 percent for five straight months.

The Fed is not expected to raise rates at its policy meeting next week, but economists believe October’s strong labor market data could see the U.S. central bank signal an increase in December. The Fed raised borrowing costs in September for the third time this year.

U.S. stocks were trading mostly lower and the dollar was slightly weaker against a basket of currencies on Friday. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were lower.

WORKER SHORTAGE

Employers, scrambling to find qualified workers, are boosting wages. There are a record 7.14 million open jobs.

Online retail giant Amazon.com Inc announced last month that it would raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour for U.S. employees starting in November. Workers at United States Steel Corp are set to receive a hefty pay rise also.

Employment gains have averaged 218,000 jobs per month over the past three months, double the roughly 100,000 needed to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

That is seen supporting the economy through at least early 2019 when gross domestic product is expected to significantly slow as the stimulus from the White House’s $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, increased two-tenths of a percentage point to 62.9 percent last month.

A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, fell to 7.4 percent last month from 7.5 percent in September. The employment-to-population ratio rose two-tenths of percentage point to 60.6 percent, the highest since January 2009.

Last month, employment in the leisure and hospitality sector increased by 42,000 jobs after being unchanged in September. Retail payrolls rose by only 2,400, likely restrained by layoffs related to Steinhoff’s Mattress Firm bankruptcy as well as some store closures by Sears Holdings Corp.

Construction companies hired 30,000 more workers in October. Jobs in the sector have been increasing despite weakness in the housing market. Government payrolls rose by 4,000 jobs in October.

Manufacturing employment increased by 32,000 jobs in October after adding 18,000 positions in September. Job gains in the sector, which accounts for about 12 percent of the U.S. economy, could slow after a survey on Thursday showed a measure of factory employment fell in October.

So far, manufacturing hiring does not appear to have been affected by the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy, which has contributed to capacity constraints at factories. The United States is locked in a bitter trade war with China as well as tit-for-tat tariffs with other trade partners, including the European Union, Canada and Mexico.

Despite the protectionist measures, the trade deficit continues to deteriorate. In a separate report on Friday, the Commerce Department said the trade gap increased 1.3 percent to $54.0 billion in September, widening for a fourth straight month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Clive McKeef and Paul Simao)

U.S. job growth cools as labor market nears full employment; wages rise

Job seekers line up to apply during "Amazon Jobs Day," a job fair being held at 10 fulfillment centers across the United States aimed at filling more than 50,000 jobs, at the Amazon.com Fulfillment Center in Fall River, Massachusetts, U.S., August 2, 2017.

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth slowed more than expected in December amid a decline in retail employment, but a pick-up in monthly wage gains pointed to labor market strength that could pave the way for the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates in March.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 148,000 jobs last month after surging by 252,000 in November, the Labor Department said on Friday. Retail payrolls decreased by 20,300 in December, the largest drop since March, despite reports of a strong holiday shopping season.

The unemployment rate was unchanged at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls rising by 190,000 in December. The economy needs to create 75,000 to 100,000 jobs per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

“We do not think that today’s employment report will keep the Federal Reserve from tightening again at the March policy meeting, given other strong recent economic data,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio.

Job growth surged in October and November after being held back in September by back-to-back hurricanes, which destroyed infrastructure and homes and temporarily dislocated some workers in Texas and Florida.

Taking some sting out of the moderation in job gains, average hourly earnings rose 9 cents, or 0.3 percent, in December after a 0.1 percent gain in the prior month. That lifted the annual increase in wages to 2.5 percent from 2.4 percent in November.

Prices of U.S. Treasuries were mostly flat while the U.S. dollar <.DXY> was slightly stronger against a basket of currencies. U.S. stock indexes opened at fresh record highs.

Employment gains in December were below the monthly average of 204,000 over the past three months. Job growth is slowing as the labor market nears full employment, but could get a temporary boost from a $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts passed by the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last month.

The lift from the fiscal stimulus, which includes a sharp reduction in the corporate income tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent, is likely to be modest as the stimulus is occurring with the economy operating almost at capacity. There are also concerns the economy could overheat.

“With the tax cuts we get solid GDP growth in the near-term and then a fiscal hangover, which will likely put the economy at a greater risk of recession,” said Ryan Sweet, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

NEAR FULL EMPLOYMENT

Data ranging from housing to manufacturing and consumer spending have suggested solid economic growth in the fourth quarter, despite a widening of the trade deficit in both October and November, which could subtract from gross domestic product.

In a separate report on Friday, the Commerce Department said the trade gap widened 3.2 percent in November to $50.5 billion, the highest level since January 2012.

The deficit was boosted by record high imports, which offset the highest exports in three years. The economy grew at a 3.2 percent annualized rate in the third quarter.

For all of 2017, the economy created 2.1 million jobs, below the 2.2 million added in 2016. Economists expect job growth to slow further this year as the labor market hits full employment, which will likely boost wage growth as employers compete for workers.

Economists are optimistic that annual wage growth will top 3.0 percent by the end of this year. The December employment report incorporated annual revisions to the seasonally adjusted household survey data going back five years.

There was no change in the unemployment rate, which declined by seven-tenths of a percentage point last year.

Economists believe the jobless rate could drop to 3.5 percent by the end of this year. That could potentially unleash a faster pace of wage growth and translate into a much stronger increase in inflation than currently anticipated.

That, according to economists, would force the Fed to push through four interest rate increases this year instead of the three it has penciled in. The U.S. central bank raised borrowing costs three times in 2017.

“If the unemployment rate declines and wages rise faster, which is likely, the Fed is going to start worrying about wage inflation,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

Employment gains were largely broad-based in December. Construction payrolls increased by 30,000 jobs, the most since February, reflecting recent strong increases in homebuilding. Manufacturing employment increased by 25,000 jobs.

Manufacturing is being supported by a strengthening global economy and a weakening dollar. Employment in the utilities sector fell for a second straight month.

General merchandise stores payrolls tumbled by 27,300 in December, with employment at clothing stores dropping by 3,800 jobs.

For all of 2017, retail employment dropped by 67,000 jobs after rising by 203,000 in 2016. Further job losses are likely this year as major retailers, facing stiff competition from online sellers like Amazon.com Inc <AMZN.O>, close stores.

Sears Holdings Corp said on Thursday it was shuttering 103 unprofitable Kmart and Sears stores. Macys Inc also announced 11 store closures, which could leave 5,000 workers unemployed.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)