Modern economics has been founded in study of what caused the Great Depression of the 1930s, with an eye to preventing a recurrence of this devastating period. We know very clearly that tariffs and quotas are, generally speaking, bad things. They reduce overall economic activity in the countries that apply them. Yes, politically favored industries do often get a benefit, but the cost to everybody else is many times larger. We also know that the use of tariffs and quotas can snowball into a storm of retaliation and counter-retaliation that can do widespread damage for a long time.
My point is that it’s inconceivable that high-ranking public officials in Washington don’t know this.
HOG motorcycles are Baby Boomer counterculture icon. The company’s traditional domestic male customer base is aging, however, and losing the strength and sense of balance required to operate these heavy machines. At the same time, HOG has had difficulty in attracting younger customers, or women or minority groups to its offerings. So it’s an economically more fragile firm, I think, than the consensus realizes.
HOG has been damaged to some degree by the Trump tariffs on aluminum and steel, which are important raw materials. (As I understand them, the tariffs are ostensibly to address Chinese theft of US intellectual property, although they are being levied principally against Japan and the EU. ???)
Completely predictably, the EU is retaliating against the tariffs. In particular, it is levying its own 25% tariff on HOG motorcycles imported from the US. This affects about 20% of Harley’s output. HOG says the levy will cost it $100 million a year in lost income, implying that all of the EU-bound Harleys are now made in the US. HOGs response is to shift production targeted for the EU to its overseas plants. My guess is that this will take 1000+ jobs out of the US.
In contrast to the job loss from this one company, public reports indicate the total job gain from the steel/aluminum tariffs to be about 800 workers being recalled to previously idle steel/aluminum plants.
Mr. Trump’s response to the HOG announcement was to threaten punitive tariffs on any imports of foreign-made Harleys–a move that could threaten the viability of HOG’s network of around 700 independent dealerships. 7000 jobs at risk?
The stock market declined sharply on the day of the HOG announcement. I think that’s because the HOG story is a shorthand illustration of how tariffs, and quotas, cause net losses to the country as a whole, although they may bring benefits to a politically favored few.
A second negative effect of trade protection is a long-term one. My experience is that most often the protected industry, relieved of immediate competitive pressure, ceases to evolve. After a few years, consumers become willing to pay the increased price to get a (better) imported product. In my mind, General Motors is the poster child for this.
Stock market implications? …avoid Industrials. The obvious beneficiary of Washington’s ill-thought out trade policy is IT. For the moment, however, I think that this group is expensive enough that Consumer Discretionary and Energy are better areas to pick through.
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