tariffs

In the USMCA Ratification Battle, A Big Tariff Fight Is Brewing

For those of us who support the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the renegotiation process had us at the edge of our seats each day.  Would the three parties be able to reach agreement? If not, would the Trump administration try to withdraw from NAFTA? And if so, would Congress act to stop the withdrawal? When the newly minted U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was signed last November, there was a brief reprieve from the stressful, high-stakes negotiations.

U.S. Trade Policy Agenda in 2019? Fixing What’s Been Breaking Since January 20, 2017

Upon taking office in 2017, President Trump accused trade partners of underhandedness, demonized U.S. companies with foreign supply chains, and perpetuated the false narrative that trade is a zero-sum game requiring an “America First” agenda. He withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened to pull out of North American Free Trade Agreement and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and initiated a war of attrition against the World Trade Organization by refusing to endorse any new Appellate Body judges until his unspecified demands were met.

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.

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]

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.

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.

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