Tag: tariffs

“Where Do We Have Tariffs?” the President Asked. On Clothing and Footwear, For a Start

“Where do we have tariffs?” President Trump asked yesterday. One obvious answer is on imported clothing and footwear, where tariffs are both substantial and hit low-income consumers hard.

The United States raised $33.1 billion in tariff revenue in 2017, but $14 billion of that came from tariffs on apparel and footwear alone. These items account for 4.6 percent of the value of U.S. imports, but 42 percent of duties paid. That means while the average effective tariff rate for U.S. imports overall is just over 1.4 percent, rates for apparel and footwear are 13.7 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively.[i]

My colleague Daniel Ikenson has previously examined the evolution of clothing and textile protectionism. He concludes that such high tariffs do not protect domestic apparel manufacturing. Data from the U.S. Trade Representative shows that 91 percent of manufactured apparel goods and 96.5 percent of footwear are imported.

Why then are such highly regressive tariffs imposed? The answer appears to be the lobbying efforts of the capital-intensive U.S. textile industry. Textiles are the major input for labor-intensive apparel production, which largely occurs overseas. To quote Ikenson directly:

The U.S. textile industry insists on preserving those tariffs as leverage to compel foreign apparel producers to purchase their inputs. Preferential access [to U.S. markets] is conditioned on use of U.S. textiles. The high rates of duty apply, generally, to all “normal trade relations” partners. But those duties are much lower or excused entirely for trade agreement partners, provided that the finished garment comprises of textiles made in countries that are signatories to the agreement.

U.S. consumers pay the price of this protectionism, and poorer consumers especially. In 2016, the average household in the bottom income quintile spent $860 on apparel and footwear, or 3.4 percent of overall spending—the highest proportion of any income quintile. The average single-parent household put 4.5 percent of total expenditure toward these goods. The poor spend a disproportionate amount on clothing and footwear, and family structures most likely to be recipients of means-tested welfare programs (single-parent households) spend most of all.

But this protectionism is not just regressive because of relative spending patterns. Edward Gresser’s work has shown how, often, luxury clothes and shoes face lower tariff rates than inexpensive products.

Consider Table 3 from my report below (an updated version of Gresser’s work.) Where duties are applicable, a pure cashmere sweater import incurs a 4 percent tariff, a wool sweater a 16 percent tariff, and an acrylic sweater a whopping 32 percent. Men’s silk shirts see a 0.9 percent tariff, cotton shirts a 19.7 percent tariff, and cheaper polyester shirts a 32 percent tariff. Leather dress shoes have an 8.5 percent tariff, whereas cheap sneakers would see a 43 percent tariff. Windbreakers, leggings, tank tops, and other clothes made cheaply from synthetic fabrics face a 32 percent tariff if sourced from countries that the United States does not have a free-trade agreement with. Assuming poorer households tend to buy cheaper products, these differential tariffs have perniciously regressive effects.

Regressive tariffs

The true overall cost of all this to poorer families is difficult to calculate. To get an accurate estimate would require detailed information on the effect on domestic substitute goods’ prices, knowledge of products bought by poor families and their propensity to import in the absence of protectionism.

Nevertheless, we can develop cautious lower-bound estimates. The average household in the poorest income quintile spends $655 on apparel and $206 on footwear per year. Assuming the import propensities for the population as a whole apply to poorer people implies $595 of apparel spending and $199 of footwear spending is on imported goods. Taking average effective tariff rates for apparel and footwear for this spending (13.7 and 11.3 percent) implies a combined direct tariff cost of $92 per year for the average household in the poorest income quintile, or $204 per year for the average single-parent household.

These figures likely underestimate the true burden, because they only represent the direct cost from current spending on imported goods. They assume tariffs do not raise domestically produced goods prices, though in reality the anti-competitive effect of the tariffs would be expected to raise prices here too. It also assumes the same effective tariff rates for apparel and footwear apply for the poorest households as for the whole population, but we have seen that products that the poor are more likely to buy tend to face higher tariff rates. Consumer welfare losses from tariffs, of course, are higher than the implied costs here, since tariffs make consumers less willing to buy imported products that they would otherwise prefer.

In short, next time the President asks where tariffs are applied, someone shout “apparel and footwear.” They are both large and regressive.


[i] U.S. International Trade Commission, “Interactive Tariff and Trade DataWeb,” at http://dataweb.usitc.gov. Data for imports for consumption, and effective rates calculated using “customs value” and “calculated duties” for 2017.

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Why All Went Quiet on the Western Trade Front

Although many hailed last week’s “trade agreement” between President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as an important achievement, it included no firm commitments to reduce tariffs, non-tariff barriers, or subsidies—or to do anything for that matter. The only agreement of substance was that new tariffs would not be imposed, while Washington and Brussels negotiated longer-term solutions to problems both real and imagined.

Those hungering for some good trade news might call that progress, but the only new tariffs that were under consideration (outside the exclusive domain of the president’s head) were those related to the Commerce Department’s investigation into the national security implications of automobile and auto parts imports. Of course, that investigation is still proceeding and there’s no reason to think Trump won’t leverage the threat of imposing auto tariffs to bend the outcome of those EU negotiations in his favor.

So what does Trump want? Trump seems committed to prosecuting a trade war with China and he expects the EU to have his back in that fight. Trump’s tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese products are scheduled to expand to $50 billion in early August and potentially to $250 billion in September. In a recent CNBC interview, Trump even threatened to subject all Chinese goods—more than $500 billion worth of imports in 2017—to additional tariffs.

For the first $34 billion, China has retaliated in kind, targeting mostly agricultural, aquaculture, and meat products. Beijing has pledged to go tit-for-tat throughout, even though its retaliation would have to take other forms—such as penalizing U.S. multinationals operating in China—because annual U.S. exports to China are in the neighborhood of only $130 billion.

The only real factor constraining Trump’s trade war is the potential that workers in red states will abandon the cause and turn on him. But so far, even as domestic production and employment are threatened as a consequence of the tariffs and the retaliation, Trump’s base still seems to be supporting his unorthodox, zero-sum approach to trade. Last month, a worker at Wisconsin’s Harley-Davidson facility, which will be downsizing as the company shifts production to Europe as a result of the EU’s retaliatory tariffs, said of Trump: “He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman.” That worker and many others agree that the United States should be throwing its weight around to obtain a larger slice of the pie—even if that process ends up reducing the overall size of the pie.

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The Growing U.S. Trade Surplus in Services: Part Two

President Trump and others who are mistakenly troubled by trade deficits with specific countries should at least get the facts straight. To fret about trade deficits in goods alone (ignoring services) is hopelessly old-fashioned in a world where the most exciting business and investment opportunities are typically in the service industries. U.S. businesses are famously outstanding in software and communications services, health and education services, food and lodging services, legal, financial, accounting and marketing services, and so on. Hollywood, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Las Vegas and D.C.’s K-Street lawyers have always been known for their services, not “making stuff.”

The table shows a rapidly growing U.S. trade surplus in services with many important economies and regions. The U.S. services surplus tripled from 2003 to 2017 with Canada and was 7-times larger for the EU, 12-times larger for South Korea, 25-times larger for China. Rising trade surpluses in services have become large enough to more than offset the trade deficit in goods with some major trading partners – notably Canada. For all countries combined, of course, the surplus in services is not yet large enough to offset the familiar cyclical uptick in the trade deficit in goods (most imported goods are industrial components and materials). But it does not take much imagination or statistical expertise to envision an interesting trend in that direction.

Trade Surpluses in Services, in millions

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Trade Warriors Exclude a Third of U.S. Exports from “Trade Deficits”

Private services account for 69% of GDP, and 128.2 million jobs in June. In the Bureau of Economic Analysis industry accounts, private service industries “consist of utilities; wholesale trade; retail trade; transportation and warehousing; information; finance, insurance, real estate, rental, and leasing; professional and business services; educational services, health care, and social assistance; arts, entertainment, recreational, accommodation, and food services; and other services (except public administration).”

Goods-producing industries, by contrast, “consist of agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting; mining; construction; and manufacturing.” All of these goods-producing industries combined accounted for only 20.7 million jobs this June. That was fewer goods-producing jobs than in July 2000 (24.7 million) or August 1979 (25 million) or even May 1969 (22.9 million).  In other words, all long-term U.S. job growth has been in service occupations, not in manufacturing, mining, construction, and agriculture.

Employees producing Services or Goods

The United States is predominantly a service economy.  Many world-famous U.S. enterprises provide services all over the world – including entertainment, transportation, legal services, chain restaurants, advertising, accounting, medical tourism and college degrees.  In fact, rising U.S. service exports accounted for a third of total exports from January through May, and the U.S. surplus in services shrunk the total deficit by 31%.

Yet when President Trump and his trade war generals talk excitedly about bilateral trade deficits, they invariably talk only about goods - never services.  Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, for example, published “Free Trade Is a Two-Way Street” in The Wall Street Journal, writing only about “trade in goods” – as though a third of U.S. exports, most U.S. jobs and 69% of U.S. GDP is not worth mentioning.

The Hidden Costs of Tariffs

This news report from the Washington Post is a striking example of the absurd costs of complex tariff systems:

Brand-new Ford Transit Connect vans, made in Spain, are dropped off at U.S. ports several times a month. First, they pass through customs — and then workers hired by the automaker start to rip the vehicles apart. The rear seats are plucked out. The seat belts in back go, too. Sometimes, the rear side windows are covered with painted plates. Any holes left in the floor are patched over. 

Why? Because there’s a 25 percent tariff on imported pickup trucks and work vans, but only a 2.5 percent tariff on passenger vans. So even with all the extra effort of building a passenger-quality van, and then dismantling it, it’s still cheaper to do that than to pay a substantial tax on the import. 

The story is also a reminder of how bad policies can linger for decades. In the early 1960s Europeans increased their purchases of American chicken. European governments responded by imposing tariffs on chicken imported from the United States. In retaliation, President Lyndon B. Johnson imposed a 25 percent tariff – known as the “chicken tax” – on potato starch, dextrin, brandy, and light trucks. Tariffs on the other products were eventually lifted, but the high tax on light trucks remains. Thus the counterproductive construction and destruction. And by the way, this is no secret; the Wall Street Journal wrote about Ford’s practice in 2009.

The Post goes on to report:

Tariff engineering has a long history.

In the 1880s, the Supreme Court ruled it was acceptable for a sugar importer to intentionally darken refined sugar with molasses to lower the grade and secure a lower duty. Three decades later, the court took up the case of a company accused of trying to evade a 60 percent duty on strung pearls by instead shipping loose pearls with holes pre-drilled for stringing. Those faced only a 10 percent duty….

For example, some athletic shoes, such as Converse All-Stars, come with just enough fuzzy cloth on the rubber soles to qualify them as lower-duty slippers. In the early 1980s, the United States imposed a tariff on motorcycles with engines larger than 700 cubic centimeters in a bid to protect U.S.-based Harley-Davidson, so Japanese companies turned to making 699-cubic-centimeter motorcycles instead.

[See https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/taking-america-ride-politics-motorcycle-tariffs]

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Pro-business? Wilbur Ross Channels Hillary Clinton

On Wednesday members of the Senate Finance Committee questioned Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross about the costs to American businesses of the administration’s tariffs. Ross was unsympathetic:

When Thune warned that the drop in soybean prices (caused by China’s retaliatory tariffs) was costing South Dakota soybean farmers hundreds of millions of dollars, Ross responded by saying he heard the price drop “has been exaggerated.”…

Ross told Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) that he’s heard the rising cost of newsprint for rural newspapers “is a very trivial thing,” and he told Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) that it’s tough luck if small businesses don’t have lawyers to apply for exemptions: “It’s not our fault if people file late.”

That reminded me of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s response in 1993 to a small businessman about how her health care plan might raise his costs:

“I can’t go out and save every undercapitalized entrepreneur in America.”

Seems like lots of Washington operators don’t care much about the burdens that taxes, regulations, mandates, tariffs, and other policies impose on small businesses and their employees.

Trump’s Trade Policy Is a Disaster, But Postponing the China Trade War Was Smart

Reactions in the United States to the Trump administration’s announcement on Saturday that it would refrain from imposing new tariffs on imports from China for the time being have been decidedly negative. One would expect criticism from the unions, the steel producers, and old economy manufacturing trade associations. After all, many seemed not the least bit concerned about burdening the economy with 25 percent duties on $50-$150 billion of Chinese imports and retaliation of similar scale against U.S. exports, as long as they secured for themselves a small bag of booty in the process. Trump’s “America-First” brand of economic nationalism was everything they had ever hoped for—and now it may be in retreat.

Likewise, one can understand why the administration’s decision to reconsider its approach to Chinese technology companies and Chinese technology transgressions makes the security hawks unhappy. Many of them have been peddling a self-perpetuating narrative that is one part fact to three parts innuendo, hearsay, and speculation that war (and not just the trade kind) between the United States and China is inevitable, and that there is very little scope for further cooperation. Why, they wonder, would Trump squander the leverage to compel real Chinese reform that was afforded by the results of the Section 301 investigation and ZTE’s existential predicament?

But I am most disappointed by those who present themselves as pro-trade, internationalist, cosmopolitan, and informed, but who seem strangely disappointed that the administration stepped back from the abyss. There was a point when these folks warned about the perils of Trump’s protectionist path, and screamed from the hilltops about how Trump’s unilateralism would kill the World Trade Organization. On Twitter, they goad Trump: “Trump blinked.” “Xi schooled Trump.” “U.S. credibility has been squandered” (as if it was somehow squandered THAT moment). For some of these people, disdain for Trump or the desire to be perceived as the most offended by his behavior is more important than supporting one of his rare decisions to do the right thing.

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