Amid the flood of terrible news that’s been engulfing the U.S. economy because of the CCP Virus and its shutdown effects, there’s a decidedly positive development to report: Major evidence has just come in showing that the decoupling of the U.S. economy from China’s keeps proceeding. And, even better, the data make clear that the United States is amply capable of prospering without extensive ties with (and resulting vulnerabilities to) the increasingly hostile and dangerous regime in Beijing.
The latest evidence for such conclusions about the so-called decoupling process comes from a study just jointly released by a research firm called the Rhodium Group and a pillar of the Offshoring Lobby called the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. The real work was done by the folks at Rhodium, and the big takeaways are:
>that the value of Chinese “foreign direct investment” (FDI) in the United States (i.e., Chinese takeovers or acquisition of stakes in existing non-financial assets in the United States, and creation of new non-financial assets) fell slightly on year last year to its lowest annual level ($4.78 billion) since 2010, and is now nearly 90 percent below its peak annual level of $46.49 billion in 2016;
>that the value of Chinese “venture capital” investment (a strange term for originating in the state-controlled Chinese economy) going into the United States fell from its all-time high of $4.67 billion in 2018 to $2.57 billion last year;
>that the value of U.S. FDI made into the Chinese economy edged up sequentially last year, from $12.89 billion to $14.13 billion, but still remains well below its peak of $20.94 billion in 2008;
>and that the value of U.S. venture capital investment going into China plummeted from its all-time high of $19.57 billion in 2018 to $4.98 billion in last year.
Even if you’re not concerned about greater integration with a country that’s threatened cut off vital medical supplies to the United States during the current pandemic, or about the national security threat posed by Chinese access to defense- or surveillance- or hacking-related tech, this is great news for anyone valuing the benefits of free markets. For any participation by China’s state-controlled system in the U.S. economy can only distort the workings of free markets, and in particular, force U.S. businesses (which until the CCP Virus invaded needed to rely on private sources for their capital) to compete with Chinese rivals (which can rely on the Chinese treasury).
Rhodium’s research also found that Chinese investment flows into the United States plunged even further during the first quarter of this year (the first pandemic quarter) while U.S. flows into China remained pretty stable. But the pre-CCP Virus results are undoubtedly more revealing of the underlying longer-term trends.
Decoupling is proceeding even faster on the trade front. Last week’s monthly U.S. trade report from the Census Bureau (for March) showed that the two-way value of U.S.-China trade in goods (the sum of imports and exports) sank by 42.49 percent between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020. That’s the lowest quarterly level since the $72.16 billion level recorded for the first quarter of 2006.
More revealing, though: At that point, two-way goods trade represented 0.53 percent of the total U.S. economy. In the first quarter of 2020, the proportion was down to 0.35 percent.
Of course, the first quarter 2020 results have been distorted by the CCP Virus’ effects (and greater distortion surely lies ahead). More specifically, gross domestic product (GDP) decreased from the fourth quarter of last year to the first quarter of this year, and it grew a measly 2.10 percent before adjusting for inflation over the fourth quarter of 2019. (This and the following growth figures are different, and higher, than the growth figures featured in the most widely tracked GDP figures, which are adjusted for price changes. I’m using the pre-inflation GDP figures here because inflation-adjusted country-specific trade figures aren’t available.)
For more “normal” data, let’s check out the figures for the year preceding the fourth quarter of 2019. During that timespan, the value of two-way U.S.-China goods trade dropped by 19.48 percent – from $171.57 billion to $138.15 billion. But pre-inflation growth hit a solid 3.98 percent.
Slightly shifting the time periods examined produces the same pattern. Between the first quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, the value of two-way U.S.-China goods trade nosedived by 46.40 percent. In other words, it was cut nearly in half. Yet current dollar growth during that period hit 4.64 percent.
At this point, it’s necessary to point out that this big 2018-19 decline in the value of two-way goods trade came right on the heels of a huge 77.58 percent increase between 2017 and 2018. But this rise stemmed mainly from the major adjustments made by businesses on both sides of the Pacific – especially what’s called U.S. tariff “front-running” – to deal with President Trump’s steadily escalating increases in tariffs on imports from China.
The justification for confidence that, but for the virus’ impact, the New Normal in U.S.-China trade would be reflecting more decoupling comes from examining the trends before and after President Trump’s January, 2017 inauguration. From the time Mr. Trump entered office through the end of last year, the economy grew by a total of 13.23 percent. But the value of two-way bilateral goods trade became 0.32 percent higher. In other words, for all intents and purposes, it didn’t grow at all.
That marks a major turnaround from the eight years under former President Obama, when the only first-quarter-to-first-quarter shrinkage in two-way trade (7.35 percent, between 2015 and 2016) was accompanied by weak 2.45 percent GDP growth. Moreover the only Obama first-quarter-to-first-quarter period when strong GDP growth (5.14 percent) was accompanied by only relatively modest growth in two-way bilateral trade (5.28 percent) came between 2014 and 2015. For the rest of his term in office, the growth of two-way U.S.-China goods trade significantly topped the growth of the economy, before taking inflation into account.
One of the most important concepts in free market-oriented economics is that of trade-offs, often expressed with the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Decoupling America’s economy from China’s will no doubt entail further disruption and costs related to the inevitable inefficiencies of supply chain rejiggering. But the U.S.’ ability to grow strongly even as its economic engagement with China shrivels adds to the evidence that this lunch, if not exactly free, is a terrific value.