Nov 8, 2018

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1 big thing: The Chinese art of substitution

Soy farming in Owings, Maryland, which sells its crop to U.S. chicken farmers. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

Three weeks ahead of a meeting between President Trump and China's Xi Jinping, Beijing is notching record exports and figuring out how to manage without American goods.

Why it matters: Despite tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese products, Trump has appeared to fail to budge Xi on his determination to do whatever it takes to dominate the technologies of the future.

In August, we flagged an upcoming yearlong trade war between the U.S. and China. Now, there is no indication that it will end even then.

  • Trump says he will tariff the rest of China's $510 billion in trade with the U.S. if he and Xi cannot strike a deal in Buenos Aires on Nov. 29.
  • In remarks today, Xi indicated little flexibility, suggesting that Trump needs to respect China's strategic choices, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, while China's economy is flagging a bit — in the third quarter, its GDP growth was 6.5% year-on-year, the slowest since the financial crash — it is still humming: Chinese exports keep rising, report the WSJ's Liyan Qi and Grace Zhu.

  • The acrimonious U.S.-China trade gap is up 15% from a year ago and China is on pace to post another record surplus.

The impact: One of the trade war's most immediate U.S. victims is Maine lobster fishing, writes Bloomberg's Shawn Donnan. In line with Trump's tariffs, China slapped 25% levies on $128 million-a-year in U.S. lobster imports, and Maine's industry — cultivated over a decade and more — got hit.

  • China is simply buying its lobsters elsewhere — such as just over the border in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The list goes on. Parag Khanna, author of the forthcoming, "The Future is Asian," tells Axios that China is finding ways to permanently substitute for American imports.

  • Last summer, China slashed U.S. oil imports and started to buy more from Russia and Saudi Arabia.
  • It has all but halted purchases of U.S. soybeans, buying them instead from Brazil and Argentina. Brad Setser, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Russia could emerge as another soybean supplier.
  • China very much wants to make and design its own high-end semiconductors as part of its aspirational Made in China 2025 program. For now, Khanna said a third of its high-tech imports come from U.S. companies. But it can begin to replace these from its Asian neighbors.
“Imagine China decides to cancel or diminish orders of Boeing aircraft. Of course, it can just boost orders from Airbus.”
Parag Khanna

Trump is said to want to decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies — and increasing numbers of establishment experts think he is right given China's aggressive economic tactics.

And the administration pushback is having an impact: In a report by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, about 70% of U.S. firms surveyed in southern China said they will move some or all their manufacturing to southeast Asia or elsewhere, Reuters writes.

The bottom line: Trade experts note that there is could be a price of such all-or-nothing brinksmanship should the U.S. decide that it wants trade with China after all.

“Once the U.S. loses the Chinese market for a product, it is unlikely to get it back even if this round of the trade war ends and tariffs are lifted," says Edward Alden, a trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "This is both because it will establish new sourcing patterns, which tend to be sticky, and because Chinese buyers will not want to run the risk of future U.S. tariffs."

2. The next at-risk retailers

1957. Photo: The Denver Post/Getty

We've chronicled the fall of Sears — how its deliberate sluggishness killed the Amazon of the 20th century. But Sears is not alone.

Axios' Erica Pandey writes: The next eight retailers at risk of Sears' fate are J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, J. Crew, 99 Cents Only, Hudson's Bay, Pier 1 Imports, Fred's Pharmacy, and Rite Aid, argue Retail Dive's Ben Unglesbee and Cara Salpini.

The big picture: They cite a toxic combination of high debt, weak sales and bloat. The debt of all except Pier 1 and Rite Aid comes from private equity investors.

  • J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus have $4 billion in debt each, and Penney has cut 1,000 jobs in 2018 alone.
  • Hudson's Bay, the Canadian titan, has $3.8 billion in debt and has been selling off valuable brands, piece by piece — just as Sears did in the years leading up to its demise.
  • J. Crew has $2 billion of debt, sales are tanking and it's operating at a loss.

"These companies are all struggling with how to adapt to a market in which there is no longer a middle," says Louis Hyman, a business historian at Cornell University. "Americans want either cheap or luxury. ... J. Crew is never going to be a luxury brand, and it can't compete with Target."

  • "Private equity has different expectations for these firms than perhaps is possible," Hyman says.

Yes, but: In bankruptcy, any of the eight could re-engineer their financials and stay afloat, says Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. "Most of the brands are well-known and have some value. As such, I don’t think any of them will disappear entirely even if they enter bankruptcy."

3. Seeing through bot-colored glasses

Photo: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty

Trusting a robot to do its job well — and not crush nearby humans in the process — requires that a person know if the bot is seeing and understanding the world around it.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes: You can’t really ask a robot arm what you’ve put on the table. But if you could see what the robot perceives, you'd know if it’s working — or if it’s mistaken a monkey wrench for an octopus.

That’s the theory behind the screens that will come on advanced robots for factories, workshops and roads.

  • Autonomous vehicles usually come with a display screen for passengers that shows the world around the car in real time. Assembled using lidar, radar, cameras and other sensors, the display is meant to put riders at ease: Yes, your car does know there’s a biker in its blind spot.
  • Displays by Veo Robotics allow workers to see a robot’s prediction of how nearby people might move in the coming seconds, limiting the powerful arm’s own movements.

What's next: Going beyond screens, a company called Draper is using augmented reality on smart glasses to show what a robot is seeing and doing.

  • At a conference this week in Austin, Draper’s Kimberly Jackson Ryan demonstrated how the wearer sees overlays of different colors on top of items on a workbench — a tool, a funnel, a bottle of motor oil. That is how the robot sees and understands what each item is.
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

China's AV ambitions need Silicon Valley (Joann Muller — Axios)

The Italian mafia's food link (Hannah Roberts — FT)

The jobless millennial men (Jeanna Smialek — Bloomberg)

Latin America's subprime lender (The Economist)

What happens after democracy? (Dan Slater — Foreign Affairs)

5. 1 validation thing: Amazon resurrects the catalog

An Amazon warehouse. Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty

Sears was right, according to Amazon, which is bringing back the catalog.

The field of play is the carcass of Toys R Us, which has left a $4 billion hole in the toy market. All big three retailers — Amazon, Walmart and Target — are brawling to capture it this holiday season. But it's Amazon that is reaching way back for how to win.

Erica writes: While Walmart and Target clear off thousands of shelves to make room for toys, Amazon is going old school — as in the century-old catalog pioneered by Sears — and replacing Toys R Us' own once-ubiquitous toy catalogs.

Details: Titled "A Holiday of Play," Amazon's catalog will have pictures of popular toys and QR codes that shoppers can scan to make a purchase right away — a tech twist on a traditional impulse retail tactic.

  • The catalog — Amazon's first ever — will be mailed to millions of households and handed out at Whole Foods and Amazon's brick-and-mortar bookstores and shops, Bloomberg reports.