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Commerce's Wilbur Ross: US is already in a trade war

CNBC logo CNBC 3/31/2017 Matthew J. Belvedere
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The United States will no longer bow to the rest of the world on trade because President Donald Trump plans to act, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC on Friday.

"We are in a trade war. We have been for decades. The only difference is that our troops are finally coming to the rampart. We didn't end up with a trade deficit accidentally," he said, warning about the consequences of doing nothing.

Ross, a billionaire who made his fortune investing in distressed assets, argued on "Squawk Box" that the shortfalls are the result of bad trade deals and other countries actively seeking surpluses.

"Our trade deficit overall is about $500 billion a year," Ross said. "Quite miraculously, that also equals the net trade surplus with the rest of the world."

Despite what some critics say, Ross maintained that trade deficits — the disparity between imports and exports — matter. "If trade deficits are good, why is China so pleased that they run a huge trade surplus?" he asked. "It's perfectly obvious that if China hadn't been such a huge net-exporter it never would have grown at the rate that it did."

Trump on Thursday set the tone for his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping next week by tweeting the U.S. could no longer tolerate massive trade deficits and job losses.

Ross appeared on "Squawk Box" just hours before Trump was expected to sign two executive orders aimed at fulfilling campaign promises to stop trade cheaters.

One of the orders commissions a report on practices that contribute to the nation's trade deficit such as "bad practices" and "currency misalignment," Ross said.

The other seeks better collection of anti-dumping and countervailing duties.

"When I first took this job I was horrified to learn that billions of dollars of duties that have been won after ... hard fought cases have never been collected," Ross said.

On Thursday, Ross told CNBC the Trump administration wants to formally start the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation process before Congress goes on April recess.

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