Tag: tariffs

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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Despite Growing Tensions, There Is Still Scope to Avert a U.S-China Trade War

If 2017 was the year of fiery trade talk, 2018 has been the year of provocative trade actions. During the first four months, President Trump imposed or announced intentions to impose tariffs on thousands of products stemming from five investigations conducted under three different, seldom-used laws. Talk of trade war is rampant and, as May begins, the troops are in formation—a circular formation, but a formation nonetheless! By Memorial Day, it should become much clearer whether their orders will be to shoot, hold fire, or demobilize.

What follows is a brief recap of the relevant trade policy actions of 2018 that have taken us to the present situation.

In January, the president imposed “safeguard” restrictions following two separate investigations of imports of large washers and solar cells, under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974.  Tariffs and tariff rate quotas, respectively, were imposed for a period of four years in both cases against imports from most countries. These safeguard measures are absolutely stupid as a matter of economics, but relatively trivial as far as the impact on U.S.-China relations and the prospects for trade war are concerned.

In March, under the guise of acting to protect national security, Trump invoked Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from all countries. Soon after the announcement and before the tariffs took effect, Trump offered temporary exemptions to several trading partners to “encourage” them to play nice: buy more U.S. stuff; sell Americans less foreign stuff; increase NATO spending (EU countries); agree to U.S. terms on various aspects of the NAFTA renegotiations (Canada, Mexico); agree to export quotas (South Korea) and the temporary exemptions will be made permanent. Well, as the temporary exemption period was about to expire on May 1, the president extended the deadline to June 1. Presumably, if the NAFTA negotiations wrap up this month (apparently, a real possibility) and Trump gets what he wants, Canada and Mexico will be permanently exempted from the steel and aluminum tariffs. Congrats!  It’s much less clear that the Europeans are willing to submit to these tactics. They’ve crafted a retaliation list and seem likely to go that route.  The Chinese, whose steel and aluminum exports have been subject to the tariff since March 23, have already retaliated against a list of 128 U.S. products (amounting to about $3 billion in U.S. exports), including ethanol, wine, nuts, fruit, and a few other commodities. 

Although the “national security” restrictions on steel and aluminum are a more significant irritant than the safeguard restrictions on washers and solar cells, they still only amount to a flea bite on an elephant’s hide relative to Trump’s most recent, most provocative, and—some would argue—most justifiable action so far. At the beginning of April, Trump announced his intention to impose tariffs on 1,300 Chinese products accounting for about $50 billion of exports to the United States, as a result of an investigation into Chinese intellectual property and forced technology transfer policies, under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. The “remedy” also includes instructions for the Treasury Department to publish new investment rules that will make it harder for Chinese companies to purchase U.S. technology and U.S. tech companies.  Within a few hours of the U.S. announcement, China published a list of U.S. products, amounting to about $50 billion of exports to China (farm products, airplanes, autos, etc.), that it would subject to retaliatory duties of 25 percent should the U.S. measures take effect.

As of that point, between the 232 and the 301 cases, $106 billion of U.S.-China trade was in the crosshairs (about 15% of two-way trade). Then in reaction to China’s retaliation threat, Trump raised the stakes by instructing the USTR to identify another $100 billion of Chinese products to assess with tariffs.  That list has not yet been published, but if it is and China responds commensurately (by targeting another $100 billion of U.S. exports), its list would have to include ALL U.S. exports to China because total U.S. goods exports to China in 2017 amounted to $130 billion. (Services exports add another $50 billion, but they’re not easy to hit with tariffs). The next likely target would be U.S. companies operating in China—discriminatory taxes, regulations, restrictions, etc.  In any event, the amount of trade subject to tariffs ($306 billion) would begin to approach half the value of the two-way trade—a decidedly cataclysmic outcome.

President Trump seems to be aware of the stakes.  Last month he tweeted that trade wars can be good and are winnable. He cites the bilateral U.S. trade deficit as evidence that China needs us more than we need them.  Hopefully, he’s rational enough to realize that his avoidable actions would trigger a massive global economic contraction which, even if the United States is less hurt than others, history would not look kindly upon.

The month of May offers some opportunities to ratchet down the tensions and, even, find some solutions. The Trump administration’s trade policy team—USTR Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, and National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro—is in Beijing this week, presumably to get China to commit to certain actions that would enable tensions to be dialed down.  Mid-month, the USTR is holding a hearing for the public airing of views about the Section 301 remedies, where it will be impressed upon the administration how costly a trade war would be.  And, presumably, toward the end of the month is the momentous Korean Summit.  If the president gets the results he’s looking for (whatever they may be) and Beijing is perceived as having played an important role in reaching that outcome, that could give Trump the cover he probably needs to put his pistols back in their holsters and focus on an effective, comprehensive U.S.-China free trade agreement. That should be the primary goal of U.S. trade policy during the Trump administration.

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