If anyone still doubted President Trump's determination to slap tariffs on all - or even more than all - Chinese goods flowing into the US, they probably don't anymore. So far this week, the president has taken to twitter to trash his own Treasury Secretary's efforts to restart talks with the Chinese, before Trump publicly declared on Friday that he intends to move ahead with plans to slap 25% tariffs on another $200 billion worth of goods.
Given the president's unflinching resolve in pursuing his trade agenda, it's understandable why a shrewd businessmen would go to great lengths to avoid getting in the middle of what looks to be a protracted geopolitical dogfight.
But unfortunately for top Wall Street firms, many of which harbor ambitions of expanding their business in China, that may no longer be an option. Because while the Trump administration has largely left them alone, the Chinese are now trying to use whatever leverage they can (i.e. preferential access to the world's second-largest economy) to push America's top bankers to intervene on Beijing's behalf.
Reuters reported Friday that top Chinese officials have hastily organized an investment conference in Beijing and requested the presence of several top Wall Street firms. The conference will be chaired by former PBOC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan and ex-Goldman Sachs President John Thornton, and feature an appearance by Chinese vice-president Wang Qishan. Dubbed "the firefighter" by the Chinese people, Quishan, in addition to being the most powerful of China's vice presidents, is also one of the senior Communist officials involved in managing the trade dispute.
While market liberalization is certainly a priority for the Chinese, it's difficult to imagine that these top officials are planning to attend this conference - especially with so much else going on - just to brainstorm ideas about how China can proceed with opening up its financial sector.
The subtext here is obvious: China wants to figure out who in the US financial services community can help them get through to Trump and help stop this conflict before losses in China's currency and stock market spiral out of control. And if the carrot of access doesn't work, China has already proven adept at leveraging the stick.
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China will ask Wall Street firms for ways to improve ties with the United States and suggestions to open up its financial sector at a day-long meeting in Beijing on Sunday, people familiar with the matter said.
The Chinese government sent invitations for the hastily-convened meeting a few weeks ago as trade tensions between the world’s two largest economies appeared to be headed for a full-blown trade war.
Given the impossible nature of the task at hand, it's hardly surprising that several top executives - afraid of enraging Trump - are planning to avoid the meeting altogether, citing unspecified "scheduling conflicts".
Top financial firms in both countries are sending representatives to the meeting, although heavyweight invitees such as Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman were unable to rearrange their schedules to attend the meeting, a source said.
While Reuters' reporters apparently didn't question this excuse, a "scoop" published on twitter earlier this week by Fox Business correspondent Charlie Gasparino, who reported that the Schwartzman & Co. are avoiding the meeting because they don't want to feel coerced into carrying water for the Chinese.
SCOOP: Wall Street CEOs pulling out of meeting with Chinese government over trade -sources; @blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman @jpmorgan CEO Jamie Dimon will not attend; CEOs worry Chinese will try and enlist them to lobby Trump on his China trade policies more now @FoxBusiness— Charles Gasparino (@CGasparino) September 11, 2018
The tweet didn't stop Reuters from swallowing the official narrative spoon-fed to them by the "anonymous sources" cited in Reuters' story.
Zhou and Thornton have asked participants to give one or two specific ideas on how to further open up China’s financial sector as well as suggest ways to "forge normal U.S.-China relations for the benefit of our two countries and the world," according to the people and a meeting agenda seen by Reuters.
The people, who have knowledge of the meeting, declined to be named as the roundtable details were not public.
The meeting ideas should be accompanied by specific action points, said one source who was briefed on the agenda.
"They don’t want something feel-good. It’s got to be specific actionable areas where reform and opening markets is needed," said one of the sources.
Chinese government officials will aim to reassure the U.S. financial firms that Beijing is genuinely receptive to their ideas, the source added.
Reuters reported that several heavyweight names will be attending the conference...
U.S. participants at the roundtable include Citigroup’s Asia head of corporate investment banking Jan Metzger, Goldman Sachs’ newly-named president John Waldron, JPMorgan Asia CEO Nicolas Aguzin, and Morgan Stanley head of international business Franck Petitgas, the people familiar with the meeting said.
... however when approached by Reuters' reporters, most of these companies declined to comment.
CICC, Citi, Goldman Sachs, Hong Kong’s stock exchange and securities regulator, JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley declined to comment.
If anything, Wall Street's response to these overtures is, in a way, proof that Trump is right: The Chinese are getting desperate, and the US clearly has the upper hand - at least for now.
The Wall Street Journal has it wrong, we are under no pressure to make a deal with China, they are under pressure to make a deal with us. Our markets are surging, theirs are collapsing. We will soon be taking in Billions in Tariffs & making products at home. If we meet, we meet?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
Fut fortunately for the Chinese, Wall Street isn't the only industry where China has the leverage to push for a quid-pro-quo. We imagine we'll be hearing more about China's efforts to turn Apple's Tim Cook and his now confirmed anti-Trump Silicon Valley peers into unwitting advocates for China's cause in the not-too-distant future.