Tweets from President Donald Trump that he's a "Tariff Man" might prove to be a harmless bit of silliness. Ultimately this self-labeling might not affect U.S. policy any more than his calling Kim Jong Un "Rocket Man" did much to reshape reality in North Korea.
That is, the diplomatic process is incomplete. If you're bullish on tariffs, the possibility remains that the White House's use of them will reap desired benefits.
But not yet. The weekend's G-20 dinner meeting between Trump and China's president Xi Jinping prompted the kind of reality check to which we're getting accustomed after one of Trump's premature declarations of success.
Trump initially said: “It goes down, certainly — if it happens, it goes down as one of the largest deals ever made." As the week began, however, accounts of this "deal" from the parties involved whittled it down to another vague verbal agreement to try to agree in the future.
One positive note involved China's export of fentanyl — the use of which, in tandem with heroin, has been highly lethal in the U.S.
Fentanyl has been a controlled substance for years in China. Now, its officials have decided to "list all the fentanyl-like substances as controlled substances and start working to adjust related regulations," according to China's foreign ministry.
But it's unknown how effectively this will be enforced.
Meanwhile, Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the U.S. and China were "pretty close" to an agreement on halting intellectual property theft, which has been a very real business concern for a very long time.
That too must be taken skeptically.
Trump said China agreed to “reduce and remove” all tariffs on U.S. auto imports.
This quickly proved vaporous. Kudlow said, "We don’t yet have a specific agreement on that." Farm products? Also hazy.
Most of the president's past claims of concessions from other countries have fallen short of his hype — not just North Korean nukes but NATO defense allocations and a trade agreement that remains NAFTA-based.
With the trade-war status quo intact after Buenos Aires, the stock market tanked, wiping out an earlier rise. But some believe the timing of the dive may be coincidental.
Some investors were reportedly spooked by the possible approach of a so-called inverted yield curve. This happens when bond yields in the short term rise above those for the longer term. Experts say this has a way of preceding economic downturns.
Still, Trump's saber-rattling does make Wall Streeters nervous.
Investment giant JPMorgan wrote in a trading note: “It doesn’t seem like anything was actually agreed to at the dinner and White House officials are contorting themselves into pretzels to reconcile Trump’s tweets (which seem if not completely fabricated then grossly exaggerated) with reality."
Signaling he plans to drive a hard bargain in the next few weeks, Trump picked U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to head negotiations. He's praised by trade hawks, feared by so-called "free-trade" advocates.
“This is not a stock market guy. This is not a finance guy. This is not somebody looking at general indicators of the economy,” Richard Ellings, president of the National Bureau of Asian Research, told The Washington Post.
Lighthizer "is a guy who’s in the nuts and bolts and understands the Chinese system. So that’s a very interesting and strong message,” Ellings said.
Remember: Tariffs are taxes on imports and exports between sovereign states. It is well known that Trump has made statements distorting who's paying them to make it sound as if he's getting newfound billions out of China.
Since tariffs are taxes, it at least showed a sense of political preservation for Trump to refrain from branding himself a "Tax Man."
That could cost him.