Washington Insider -- Tuesday

Trade Tactic or New Policy?

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

USDA Announces Short List For Relocating ERS, NIFA

Indiana, Kansas and North Carolina comprise the “short list” of candidates to host the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), USDA announced Friday.

"This short list of locations took into consideration critical factors required to uphold the important missions of ERS and NIFA,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

USDA is looking at multiple locations in Indiana based on applications from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, Purdue University and the state of Indiana. Two other locations that did not make the final top three — St. Louis and Madison, Wisconsin — “remain under consideration as alternative locations should the top three locations not suit USDA’s needs,” USDA said. USDA narrowed the list of applicants “using a set of established criteria defined by USDA, NIFA, and ERS leadership.”

USDA said it expects to finalize the selection this month and has promised to provide Congress with the cost-benefit analysis it used to determine the final site.

Perdue told the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee in April that finalists would have a chance to update their offers. "We expect to get some good proposals here," he told lawmakers. "We will go back to those few finalists here and ask their last and best offer in that regard. If I cannot bring a deal to you that makes sense, then I would not expect you all to approve it.”

USDA Unveils Repayment Options for MPP Dairy Program

USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that dairy producers who had coverage under the Margin Protection Program for Dairy (MPP-Dairy) are eligible to receive a repayment for part of the premiums paid into the program.

To be eligible for this repayment, authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill, a dairy operation must have participated in the MPP-Dairy during any calendar year from 2014 through 2017, have the repayment calculated and verified by FSA and elect one of two options by September 20, 2019.

Operations whose established production history has been transferred to an heir or new owner also are eligible.

Washington Insider: Trade Tactic or New Policy?

Suddenly, U.S. trade policy became murkier this week as policy analysts offered a “variety of interpretations of President Trump’s latest tariff threat,” Bloomberg said this week.

Some, like Goldman and Citi, are optimistic a U.S.-China deal can still be reached. Others, including Raymond James and Cowen, are more cautious, warning the process may have been derailed, and point to rising global risks.

Investors weren’t happy about the news, with the S&P 500 dropping by as much as 1.6% in early Monday trading, the most since March 22. Tech and machinery companies were hard hit, with Alibaba Group, Apple Inc., Boeing Co. and Caterpillar Inc. all sliding. Bellwether banks such as Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. were all falling 1.5% or more. Bloomberg ticked off the comments of several companies.

It reported that Goldman believes a tariff increase may be “narrowly avoided,” putting odds that tariffs rise on Friday at 40 percent. “We will be watching whether a large delegation of Chinese officials comes to Washington on May 8, as scheduled; canceling would mean an agreement in the coming week would “seem very unlikely,” and would make an increase in the tariff rate to 25 percent “the base case.”

China trade issues have “negative implications for the outlook for auto tariffs and passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Goldman thinks.” It sees the administration’s “willingness to risk a market disruption by threatening an unexpected tariff hike suggests that it might also be willing to risk the disruption that formally proposing auto tariffs or announcing the intent to withdraw from NAFTA might cause.” It added that it now “raised the probability that auto tariffs will be implemented later this year to 20% from 10%, and lowered the probability that USMCA will pass to 60% from 70%.

Citi Bank’s Cesar Rojas said that they are “cautiously optimistic” on a U.S.-China trade deal in the second quarter, though tariff threats will likely “remain as a way to get concessions from China and to enforce the agreement.”

Rojas had expected that as the Chinese economy stabilized, “China would be less willing to provide additional concessions to the U.S.” The new threat is “consistent with the U.S. adding more pressure on China to get these concessions.” The Trump administration “pays attention to equity markets,” which means stocks diving could lead to a retreat from implementing the tariffs threat.

Even so, Citi Bank continues to believe “uncertainty is likely to remain high as the tariffs threat remains in place and second round effects from a reallocation of global trade remain underestimated.”

Michael Zezas, of Morgan Stanley opined that the threat of higher tariffs may be “a pressure tactic to speed an agreement on pending issues such as existing tariff removal timing, details related to the enforcement mechanism and industrial subsidies.” Morgan Stanley expects a “re-escalation would be temporary, as market weakness would help bring both sides back together,” but warned that “any escalation inherently augments uncertainty and further undercuts risk markets, where a Goldilocks outcome was already priced in.”

Ed Mills, Raymond James, noted that “the progress towards a U.S.-China deal has been up-ended with renewed tariff threats by President Trump... apparent balks by the Chinese (especially on tech transfers), and the threat of the Chinese delegation canceling this week’s round of negotiations,” he said. Conversations with Raymond James’s trade contacts point to “a universal belief that this is not negotiating leverage, but what was almost a done deal last week, has derailed in recent days. There is some hope that negotiations could be salvaged, but this situation highlights how tenuous any U.S.-China deal remains.”

Bloomberg also said that contacts have revealed questions about “what led to the latest breakdown, and whether developments related to Venezuela, the Iran oil sanctions decision, North Korea’s weekend missile test, or lessening worry about the economic conditions in both the U.S. and China influenced the direction.” Geopolitical volatility spiking in recent weeks may signal “a more difficult path ahead for negotiations,” it said.

For example, Compass Point’s Isaac Boltansky argued that “Beijing is sending roughly 100 representatives to Washington this week, which we view as indicative of their belief that a deal is within striking distance.” At the same time, he warned that “once attention turns from China to other trade matters–including the USMCA–market sentiment regarding trade policy could turn more cautious,” he said.

Finally, Bloomberg cited Cowen’s Chris Krueger who said that the “return of Tariff Man” is “pretty shocking and surprising--even grading off the Trump Curve.” He offered several interpretations. The “cautious” one suggests “this is simply an intemperate tweet (s) by a president that can’t help himself during a rainy Sunday afternoon...The President really, really wants to see this deal finished by Friday and (perhaps mistakenly) believes this gives the U.S. leverage.”

The "not-so-cautious" interpretation is that “this is not an outer-borough real estate transaction. Trump issued a Presidential Statement last week highlighting his gift as the world’s premier hostage negotiator; tariffs are a very dangerous hostage and we believe will be seen as both provocative and insulting by Beijing.”

So, we will see. Clearly, the overall picture of the administration and the Congress’ trade talks continues to be difficult and confusing and should be watched closely as the 2020 elections approach, Washington Insider believes.

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