washing machine tariffs

I’m not an expert on washing machines.  I am fascinated by the local Baby Bubbles laundromat, though.  I know how to get tokens, put them in the machines and push the right buttons.

What prompts me to write this post is the release by the University of Chicago of research findings about the tariffs placed on imported washing machines by the administration in Washington last year in the name of national security (?).

background

The US washing machine market has three leading competitors, each with a market share of around 15%: Whirlpool, a US-based company, and LG and Samsung, two Korean firms.

During the Obama administration, Washington applied tariffs to washing machines made in Korea.  LG and Samsung countered by shifting production to China, which is a typical “country-hopping” response.  Ironically, this made the two even more competitive in the US, and consumer prices here continued to decline.  The Trump administration took a more heavy-handed approach, by applying a blanket tariff of (to keep the story simple) 20% to all washing machine imports.  LG and Samsung responded this time by accelerating the completion of US factories.

winners and losers

Basic economic theory says that increased costs will either be absorbed by the manufacturer or passed on to consumers, in proportions determined by who has market power.  In this case, however, all three firms raised washing machine prices by close to 12%   …and they raised the price of dryers, which were not subject to tariffs (but which are typically paired with washers when people buy) by the same.  That meant both Korean firms recovered the entire tariff plus a bunch.

The net effects:  consumers paid $1.5 billion more for washer/dryers in 2018; market shares for LG and Samsung remained unchanged; the government collected $82 million in tariffs; 1,800 new jobs were created (in a workforce of 150 million+).  The yearly cost to consumers for each of these new positions?  $815,000+.  

The winners:  LG, Samsung and Whirlpool (although analysts think Whirlpool’s 2019 earnings will remain below 2017 levels).

The losers:  the American public.

my take

This is the way protection typically works.  It sounds good but has perverse effects.  A domestic firm flexes its political muscle to prevent better/cheaper products from entering the country from abroad.  In theory, this is supposed to buy time for it to innovate.  Most often, however, the protected firm uses government action as a substitute for creating new, better products. The poster children in the US for this type of behavior–and its negative consequences for the economy–are the Big Three automakers of Detroit.

There is a pressing issue in the trade arena–preventing the theft of intellectual property in areas like computer software, advanced electronic manufacturing and biotech.   The current administration seems to have abandoned any effort to do so, however, in favor of protecting the income of industries of the past.  As an American, this is a worry.  As an investor, it argues that one should make a greater effort to explore opportunities in greater China and in Europe.

 

 

 

protecting domestic industry

If his inaugural speech is any indication, a principal tool President Trump expects to use to enhance US economic performance is to help expand sunset manufacturing industries by protecting them against imports.   More useful action would be to emphasize improving the skill level of the workforce and to encourage innovation.  There may be a place for preventing foreigners from selling at below production cost (dumping) designed to stamp out competitors.  But by itself, and as a principal strategy, protection usually ends up making the economic situation worse, not better.

That’s because:

it stifles innovation, as we can see from the current parlous state of the Japanese economy, which embarked on a strategy of protection in the early 1990s.  That country still has domestic industry that’s state of the art circa 1980, but little that’s more recent.  The US auto industry, which Washington protected from foreign competition beginning in the late 1970s from the 1970s onward, is another example.

other countries retaliate when the borders are close to their products.  President Obama placed import duties on Chinese truck tires, effectively barring them from the US market.  China responded by taxing agricultural products sold there by US firms.

protection typically raises costs to local consumers, lowering their standard of living.  Mr. Obama’s headscratching move simply redirected the source of imported tires from China to Thailand–at much higher cost.  Economists estimate that this unintended (I hope) effect alone cost several thousand US jobs.

 

Let’s hope the president sticks to corporate tax reform and infrastructure spending.