President Donald Trump and the U.S. Labor Department are diverting billions of dollars away from the Chinese stock market. On Monday, the White House ordered a board charged with managing federal pension funds to end plans to invest in Chinese stocks.
The move could have massive geopolitical repercussions.
Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board oversees the Thrift Savings Plan. It’s a pension fund for federal workers, including the U.S. military. TSP manages over $550 billion in assets for federal employees’ retirement plans.
In November, the Thrift Investment Board confirmed plans to change its international equities fund to an index that includes Chinese stocks. This week, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia warned the changes would place,
billions of dollars in retirement savings in risky companies that pose a threat to U.S. national security.
Now the U.S. is changing course and keeping Chinese stocks out of its pension funds. The Chinese government will undoubtedly perceive this as a symbolic slight, and as a substantive attack on its economic growth by Donald Trump.
Part of the concern stems from worries over a lack of transparency and regulatory scrutiny for Chinese stocks. A former trade adviser to President Trump wrote:
There’s a lot of focus on this issue from a national security standpoint, but the investor protection angle is equally important. China is an international outlier in not permitting U.S. regulators to access the audits of its companies listed on U.S. exchanges, which puts our investors at risk.
But also at issue is the Chinese government’s role in the spread of coronavirus. National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien wrote to the Labor Secretary on May 11, saying:
Recent events, which the Board could not have anticipated when it affirmed its decision in November 2019 to move forward with adding Chinese-listed equities to the I Fund, have heightened these risks… The Chinese Government concealed critical information from the United States and the rest of the world regarding COVID-19 and exacerbated the ensuing global pandemic.
Beijing is certainly unhappy with the news. Donald Trump has already ramped up the war of words against China in recent days. Trump went so far as to suggest China let coronavirus spread to the U.S. as revenge for the recent trade war.
He also said there’s no question that the Chinese government misled the global community about coronavirus. And he’s threatened to resume the tariff war in retaliation for coronavirus.
That sent the U.S. stock market for a dive on fears of a renewed trade war with China. Benchmarks rallied into the new year pricing in a hard-fought U.S.-China détente on trade.
But Trump’s recent move is politically shrewd. He looks tough on China without going back on the trade agreement. If that provokes China to raise tariffs in retaliation, Trump can also blame them for ending the short-lived truce. Meanwhile, he could strike back by raising U.S. tariffs in response. Let’s hope it doesn’t go that far.
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