China faces diminishing returns with US commodity tariffs

China’s tariffs retaliation could proved futile as there are not many US commodities left that can be targeted for levy. (AFP pic)

HONG KONG: China’s latest retaliation against US tariffs is set to prove largely benign to commodity trade flows as Beijing runs out of raw materials to target.

Some products targeted by China tariffs were already squeezed by the long-running trade war. Meanwhile, other politically sensitive items, including soybeans, have been subject top-end levies of 25% since last year.

Even duties on US rare earths target only a single miner that exports small quantities of the materials used in magnets for electric motors. China has spared oil from tariffs for now, though refined products such as gasoline as well as biodiesel are already included. And crude shipments from America have slowed to a trickle anyway as Chinese refiners avoid the risk of becoming embroiled in the dispute.

The potential futility of China merely raising levies on goods that have already been roiled by the trade war evokes the US move last year to target products for which no trade flow exists. Still, the flaring rhetoric between the Donald Trump and Xi Jinping administrations is affecting commodity prices, with metals and grains dropping due to the risk of weaker demand from the world’s two largest economies.

Since Trump fired his first trade salvo to force policy changes by Beijing last year, China and the US have been engaged in a tit-for-tat over tariffs. US farmers, oil producers and gas exporters have seen their shipments dry up to the Asian nation, which was previously the biggest buyer of American soybeans and crude oil.

The following is how duties hit several sectors

Gas dry up
Beijing announced Monday that it will increase tariffs on LNG to 25% from 10% as of June 1. The smaller duty imposed in September had already dried up most trade as it made American cargoes more expensive versus shipments from elsewhere with prices linked to Brent crude.

China has only imported four cargoes of American gas so far in 2019, compared with 19 over the same period a year ago, according to Bloomberg analysis of vessel tracking data. While trade flows themselves are unlikely to change significantly, the dispute threatens the viability of a new wave of US LNG projects.

“An ongoing trade war between the US and China will continue to create hesitancy for Chinese buyers to sign up for new long term volumes,” Wood Mackenzie Ltd. analysts said in an emailed note.

Oil risk
Shipments from America were kept off the latest round of Chinese tariffs, extending a policy since August last year when the Asian nation removed crude from a list of goods that will incur a levy. That’s done little to encourage buyers, though.

The world’s top oil buyer only imported 1.64 million barrels of American crude in the six months to March, compared with 60.5 million barrels in the preceding six months. While shipments have edged up in recent months during a temporary truce, they are still far below last year’s level.

Unipec, the trading arm of Chinese refining giant Sinopec, has avoided bringing American crude all the way home, though it has taken US shipments to sell to third parties. The latest conflagration sets up refiners in the Asian nation for a costlier oil bill, as it closes the door to a critical source of supply just as global supplies are squeezed and Middle East producers are demanding higher prices.

Agricultural combat
China already imposes a 25% duty on US soybeans, shipments of which shrivelled to almost nothing last year as the Asian nation instead turned to supply from Latin America, particularly Brazil.

The focus now shifts to purchases that China’s committed to this year. About 7.4 million metric tons of US soybeans haven’t yet been shipped to the Asian country and, with tensions flaring again, speculation is swirling that some of the cargoes will be cancelled. Soy futures declined to a 10-year low on Monday, dropping below US$8 a bushel, as prospects for a thaw in trade relations looked further away.

Meanwhile, a tariff on biodiesel will increase to 25% from 10% from June 1, although shipments to China currently are minimal.

Rare metals
China raised tariffs to 25% from 10% on American imports of rare earths, an esoteric group of materials used in everything from electric cars to high-tech military equipment. That may hurt sales from the Mountain Pass facility in California, the only operating rare earths mine in the US

Most of the rare earths trade between the world’s top two economies goes the other way, with America reliant on China for about 80% of its supply. The Asian nation’s control of rare earths has long been flagged as a risk for advanced manufacturers in developed nations.