Watching share prices in Seoul
David Roman and Edna Curran

HONG KONG â€" Just when China's economy seemed to be stabilizing, Donald Trump's election as U.S. president poses significant new risks. Not just for Chinese growth, but the entire Asia region.

That's because the president-elect campaigned on a policy platform with protectionism at its center. Trump wants to slap punitive tariffs on Chinese goods and label the world's No. 2 economy a currency manipulator.

Such a move would hurt Chinese exports. But it could also trigger a trade war if Beijing retaliates, catching other Asian economies in the crossfire.

Other worries: A planned major regional trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, likely won't get off the ground. Slower trade flows and rising uncertainty means less investment and weaker growth. Then there are controls on movement of people, the risk of capital repatriation back to the U.S. and major security concerns.

"Profound changes in U.S. trade and security relations with the region are likely and probably negative," economists at Morgan Stanley wrote in a note.

Targeting China with trade barriers could pose an unpleasant choice for policy makers in Beijing: Accept the hit to growth from weaker exports or respond in kind, economists at Goldman Sachs Inc. wrote in a note. A weaker yuan could trigger an acceleration in capital outflows, pressuring China's international reserves and draining money from a slowing economy.

"One possible measure would be to allow a somewhat faster weakening of the yuan, although from China's perspective this or other trade measures could carry the risk of escalation," the Goldman economists wrote.

An investor survey conducted in July by Nomura Holdings Inc. flagged a long list of worries under a Trump presidency: from a possible rise in trade protectionism to threats to regional security if the U.S. cuts its military commitments in Asia.

The conclusion is clear: After Mexico, Asia is most at risk. In Nomura's report, titled "Trumping Asia," 77% of respondents in its survey expect the U.S. will brand China a currency manipulator under Trump and 75% predict he will impose tariffs on exports from China, South Korea and Japan. Only 37% think he will follow through with a pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border.

Nomura didn't disclose how many respondents it surveyed. Investors' fears aren't unwarranted. Asia is the world’s manufacturing hub and many nations are export-dependent, putting them at risk if trade barriers start rising. China was the U.S.’s biggest trading partner last year, and if trade restrictions are imposed on the nation, the knock-on effects on the rest of Asia would be substantial, according to Nomura.

None are more vulnerable in Asia than South Korea and the Philippines. South Korea faces a possible backlash from two sides: Trump has criticized a 2012 free-trade agreement with the country, saying it has destroyed almost 100,000 American jobs; and he has vowed to force South Korea to meet the full cost of security guarantees provided by the U.S., which may add to fiscal woes there, Nomura said.

Donghai bridge, China â€" Photo: Shang2008

The Philippines faces risks because of possible immigration restrictions. The U.S. is host to 35% of the total number of Filipinos working abroad, and Nomura estimates they account for about 31% of total worker remittances, a key source of foreign inflows for the local economy.

The Philippines has one of the biggest export exposures to the U.S. in Southeast Asia and Trump’s pledge to bring jobs back to the U.S. may threaten the nation’s burgeoning business process outsourcing sector. The industry caters mostly to U.S. companies and attracts revenue that may equal the size of total worker remittances, about 9% of GDP, over the next two years, according to Nomura.

To be sure, it remains to be seen how much Trump delivers on his campaign rhetoric. His promise to ramp up fiscal spending could cushion the U.S. economy, which is a potential positive for world growth too.

But even then, the absence of any new trade agreements would probably offset that.
"Asia would, therefore, benefit less from a faster pace of U.S. growth than it would have otherwise," economists at Deutsche Bank AG wrote. "Asian exporters â€" especially in North Asia â€" are particularly vulnerable, having long relied on external demand as the main impulse to growth."
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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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