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Trump pledges $16B to ailing farmers; markets sink

Updated May 23, 2019 - 12:28 pm

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is delivering another $16 billion in aid to farmers hurt by his trade policies, an effort to relieve economic pain among his supporters in rural America and another sign that the U.S.-China trade war likely won’t end anytime soon.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the first of three payments is likely to be made in July or August. He suggested it was unlikely a trade deal would be done by then, a sign that U.S. negotiators could be months away from settling a bitter trade dispute with China.

“The package we’re announcing today ensures that farmers do not bear the brunt of unfair retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and other trading partners,” Perdue said.

The latest bailout comes atop $11 billion in aid Trump provided farmers last year.

Trump, seeking to reduce America’s trade deficit with the rest of the world and with China in particular, has imposed import taxes on foreign steel, aluminum, solar panels and dishwashers and on thousands of Chinese products.

U.S trading partners have lashed back with retaliatory tariffs of their own, focusing on U.S. agricultural products in a direct shot at the American heartland, where support for Trump runs high.

William Reinsch, a trade analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former U.S. trade official, called the administration’s aid package for farmers “a fairly overt political ploy.”

“It’s not economics,” Reinsch said. Trump wants win the farm states again in the 2020 election, “and he’s got members of Congress beating up on him” to resolve the trade conflicts.

Financial markets buckled Thursday on heightened tensions between the U.S. and China. The Dow Jones industrial average was down more than 400 points in afternoon-day trading.

U.S. crude plunged 6% on fears that the trade standoff could knock the global economy out of kilter and kill demand for energy.

Standoff

Talks between the world’s two biggest economies broke off earlier this month with no resolution to a dispute over Beijing’s aggressive efforts to challenge American technological dominance. The U.S. charges that China is stealing technology, unfairly subsidizing its own companies and forcing U.S. companies to hand over trade secrets if they want access to the Chinese market.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to discuss the standoff at a meeting of the Group of 20 major economies in Osaka, Japan, next month. There are no current plans for talks to occur before then.

Briefing reporters on the farm aid package, Perdue said he doubted that “a trade deal could be consummated before” the first payments to farmers in July or August.

The second payment will be made around November and the third likely in early 2020, USDA officials said, unless a trade deal has been reached by then.

The direct payments will make up $14.5 billion of the $16 billion package and will be handed out on a county-by-county basis. The amounts will be determined by how much each county has suffered from the retaliatory duties imposed by China, as well as previous tariffs put in place by the European Union and Turkey.

The rest of the package includes $1.4 billion to purchase surplus food commodities from farmers and distribute them to U.S. schools and food banks, and $100 million to help develop new export markets overseas.

The payments will go to farmers producing roughly two dozen crops, including soybeans, corn, canola, peanuts, cotton and wheat. Dairy and hog farmers are also eligible.

U.S. soybean exports to China have been hit particularly hard, falling from $12.3 billion in 2017 to just $3.2 billion last year.

Worry for future

The aid offsets some of the losses. But farmers are worried about the future and whether they can win back lost sales in China, a market they’ve spent years breaking into. “I don’t think any kind of bailout package, even if it was permanent, would substitute for the loss markets,” said Rufus Yerxa, president of the National Foreign Trade Council and a former U.S. trade official.

Trump has said that China is footing the bill for the farm bailout by paying the tariffs. But tariffs are taxes paid by U.S. importers, and studies have shown that American consumers and businesses usually end up absorbing the higher costs.

Perdue acknowledged that the tariffs, regardless of who pays them, are sent to the Treasury Department and not earmarked for the relief program. But he said that China is “indirectly” paying for the aid.

“The president feels that China is paying for this program through the tariffs,” Perdue said.

Trump has imposed 25% tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports and is planning to hit another $300 billion worth, a move that would extend import taxes to just about everything China ships to the United States.

Among those bracing for higher costs if the new tariffs kick in is Jay Foreman, CEO of Basic Fun!, a Boca Raton, Florida, toy company that imports from China.

“The thought of the government taking my money and giving it to farmers as subsidies to support their loses doesn’t sit well,” Foreman said by email. “It’s not fair to take money from a Florida company to support an Iowa farmer! Farmers don’t want welfare. I’m sure they, like us, just want open free markets to trade in!”

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