By Howard Schneider and Jan Strupczewski
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump took power in January pledging to overhaul a global order that he said cheated middle-class Americans with a promise to tear up trade agreements and impose tariffs on China and Mexico.
Some of Trump's policy advisers named allies like Germany and Japan as possible targets for economic retaliation.
Fast-forward almost 100 days into Trump's presidency and the world's most powerful finance officials, gathered in Washington for the International Monetary Fund spring meetings, have found an administration that is far from the disruptive force Trump promised.
Although Trump did act on his campaign promise to tear up a 12-nation Pacific trade pact that had been the cornerstone of President Barack Obama's Asian pivot, he has taken a much softer stance on other issues. He has refrained from pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, did not carry out a pledge to label China a currency cheat, and his administration has signaled the United States may stay in the Paris climate accord.
Constraints being put on Trump by Congress and the courts on issues ranging from healthcare to immigration that would have filtered into the economy and the slow pace with which he is filling key administration jobs have played a role. And some foreign policy makers say they are still not sure who their counterparts are in the Trump administration.
But these policy makers said that important initial decisions have been far more centrist than might have been expected. The European Union's commissioner for economic and financial affairs, Pierre Moscovici, summed up a widely shared sentiment as he highlighted how two people at the top of Trump's economic team – Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council – have curbed the worst fears over the young U.S. presidency.
“We have the feeling that Mnuchin and Cohn are sensible people with whom we can discuss things, who are conscious of what an open economy requires,” Moscovici told Reuters in an interview.
The European Union's view of a more pragmatic administration was shared by Mexico, which attracted some of Trump's greatest ire. Trump's threat to impose punitive tariffs on Mexican exports sent the peso currency tumbling, but it has since recovered.
Mexico's finance undersecretary, Vanessa Rubio Marquez, said discussions with the Trump administration so far have become “anchored” around a handful of issues “that Mexico would be able to deal with.”
“There is still a lot of uncertainty,” she said in a seminar on Wednesday. But “dialogue has been more structured, more constant.”
“FREE TRADE WILL CONTINUE”
What Trump might mean for the U.S. and world economies has preoccupied central bankers, investors and analysts since the new president took office promising a virtual revolution in the way the United States relates to the rest of the world.
Though much about Trump's policies remain unformed as the administration approaches the 100-day mark, the more extreme risks – such as a trade war or a budget-busting fiscal program that unhinges inflation – seem to have receded.
“My belief is that a multilateral framework promoting free trade will continue. There won't be huge changes to that,” Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda told reporters on Thursday.
In remarks on Thursday, Mnuchin said tax reform remained a priority as are other steps to boost U.S. growth. But he said the hope for faster growth would mean a stronger world economy, and that it was constructive to coordinate policies through international organizations like the Group of 20.
“This administration is willing to reach out and get ideas from the outside,” Mnuchin told top-level bankers at a conference organized in parallel with the IMF meeting.
There are still risks. The Trump administration said on Thursday it would embark on a study of whether cheap steel imports from China and other countries were damaging national security. And there are still huge gaps in personnel at key bodies like Treasury and Commerce.
“Many of the top jobs are still vacant,” said one European diplomat who was attending the IMF meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Nobody outside the U.S. really knows who is the most powerful or influential one at moment,” the official said.