One of Mr. Trump’s first actions as president was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a consortium of world nations seeking, among other things, to halt Chinese theft of intellectual property.
Trump has apparently since discovered that this is a serious issue but has decided that the US will go it alone in addressing it. His approach of choice is to place tariffs on goods imported from China–steel and aluminum to start with–on the idea that the harm done to China by the tax will bring that country to the negotiating table. In what seems to me to be his signature non-sequitur-ish move, Mr. Trump has also placed tariffs on imports of these metals from Canada and from the EU.
This action has prompted the imposition of retaliatory tariffs on imports from the US.
the effect of tariffs
–the industry being “protected’ by tariffs usually raises prices
–if it has inferior products, which is often the case, it also tends to slow its pace of innovation (think: US pickup trucks, some of which still use engine technology from the 1940s)
–some producers will leave the market, meaning fewer choices for consumers; certainly there will be fewer affordable choices
–overall economic growth slows. The relatively small number of people in the protected industry benefit substantially, but the aggregate harm, spread out among the general population, outweighs this–usually by a lot
is there a plan?
If so, Mr. Trump has been unable/unwilling to explain it in a coherent way. In a political sense, it seems to me that his focus is on rewarding participants in sunset industries who form the most solid part of his support–and gaining new potential voters through trade protection of new areas.
Mr. Trump has proposed/threatened to place tariffs on automobile imports into the US. This is a much bigger deal than what he has done to date. How so?
–Yearly new car sales in the US exceed $500 billion in value, for one thing. So tariffs that raise car prices stand to have important and widespread (negative) economic effects.
–For another, automobile manufacturing supply chains are complex: many US-brand vehicles are substantially made outside the US; many foreign-brand vehicles are made mostly domestically.
–In addition, US car makers are all multi-nationals, so they face the risk that any politically-created gains domestically would be offset (or more than offset) by penalties in large growth markets like China. Toyota has already announced that it is putting proposed expansion of its US production, intended for export to China, on hold. It will send cars from Japan instead. [Q: Who is the largest exporter of US-made cars to China? A: BMW –illustrating the potential for unintended effects with automotive tariffs.]
More significant for the long term, the world is in a gradual transition toward electric vehicles. They will likely prove to be especially important in China, the world’s largest car market, which has already prioritized electric vehicles as a way of dealing with its serious air pollution problem.
This is an area where the US is now a world leader. Trade retaliation that would slow domestic development of electric vehicles, or which would prevent export of US-made electric cars to China, could be particularly damaging.
This has already happened once to the US auto industry during the heavily protected 1980s. The enhanced profitability that quotas on imported vehicles created back then induced an atmosphere of complacency. The relative market position of the Big Three deteriorated a lot. During that decade alone, GM lost a quarter of its market share, mostly to foreign brands. Just as bad, the Big Three continued to damage their own brand image by offering a parade of high-cost, low-reliability vehicles. GM has been the poster child for this. It controlled almost half the US car market in 1980; its current market share is about a third of that.
In sum, I think Mr. Trump is playing with fire with his tariff policy. I’m not sure whether he understands just how much long-term damage he may inadvertently do.
stock market implications
One of the quirks of the US stock market is that autos and housing are key industries for the economy but neither has significant representation in the S&P 500–or any other general domestic index, for that matter.
Tariffs applied so far will have little direct negative impact on S&P 500 earnings, although eventually consumer spending will slow a bit. So far, fears about the direction in which Mr. Trump may be taking the country–and the failure of Congress to act as a counterweight–have expressed themselves in two ways. They are:
–currency weakness and
–an emphasis on IT sector in the S&P 500. Within IT, the favorites have been those with the greatest international reach, and those that provide services rather than physical products. My guess is that if auto tariffs are put in place, this trend will intensify. Industrial stocks + specific areas of retaliation will, I think, join the areas to be avoided.
Of course, intended or not (I think “not”), this drag on growth would be coming after a supercharging of domestic growth through an unfunded tax cut. This arguably means that the eventual train wreck being orchestrated by Mr. Trump will be too far down the line to be discounted in stock prices right away.