Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I hate to go after the Financial Times‘ Martin Wolf, because he’s definitely one of the world’s smartest and most responsible economics commentators. Unfortunately, his March 6 column on the Trump tariffs fell so far short of his standards – and in fact simply parrots so much wrongheaded and/or simplistic trade-related conventional wisdom – that a response is essential. Let’s take his main arguments seriatim.

Wolf is apparently upset that the tariffs are “explicitly intended to last a long time.” But what could make more sense? If the aim is to spur more American steel and aluminum output, which requires major capital investments that need time to pay off, short-term tariffs, or tariffs with a publicized termination date, are bound to fall way short of their mark. The former will naturally scare off investors that simply have the requisite time horizon; the latter will additionally tell potential capital sources and foreign steel and aluminum exporters exactly when they can resume dumping subsidized product.

Wolf believes that the tariffs will so raise the costs of steel- and aluminum-using U.S.-made products that these industries and their workforces, which vastly outnumber those of the metals-makers, will suffer major losses of global competitiveness. In making this claim, he both overlooks the relatively small steel and aluminum content of many of these products, and oddly dismisses any possibility that these businesses will find ways to offset any notable input price increases with greater efficiencies elsewhere in their operations.

I say “odd” because that’s exactly what conventional economics tells us will happen – at least with companies determined to stay in their respective businesses. It’s one main reason why productivity growth exists at all. It’s also at the least significant that no less than General Motors Chair and CEO Mary Barra has stated that that’s exactly what her company will do: “We would look to find offsets and efficiencies to offset that [higher steel prices] and not have to pass it on to the customer.”

Wolf worries about the spread of what he admits are trade actions confined to steel and aluminum because so many American trade partners will retaliate. I was waiting for him – as a major supporter of free trade – preemptively to scold these countries for not realizing that theory holds that the best way to respond to tariffs is by compensating losers, not by retaliating. But it doesn’t appear to think that this venerable maxim applies outside the United States.

Wolf predicts that this retaliation will take the form of World Trade Organization  (WTO) challenges and safeguards “to forestall diversion of imports on to their markets.” But because the global steel market is a single integrated market (like so many other markets in this era of extensive globalization), such country-specific measures will fail to prevent diversion as completely as have similar past U.S. Measures. That’s probably why the European Union, for example, has hinted that it won’t wait for the WTO Good Housekeeping Seal for any retaliation. Which of course would be illegal according to WTO rules.

Wolf regurgitates the argument that the sweep of the Trump tariffs will hit “friends and allies” – belying the claim that they’re based on national security considerations. As I’ve noted, though, many of these supposed friends and allies have long been directly or indirectly helping make sure that an outsized share of Chinese-spurred global overcapacity in steel and aluminum winds up being sent to the United States. With allies like these….

Wolf expresses bewilderment that the United States would seek protection for its steel and aluminum industries because output in both has been “stable” since roughly 1990. But in the business world, that’s a euphemism for “no growth since roughly 1990.” Does that scream “competitiveness” to you? Moreover, Wolf overlooks the loss of global and U.S. market share for both sectors – not normally a sign of companies or industries with bright or even viable futures. (See here for the steel data and here for the aluminum figures.)

Wolf uses tariffs as his main measure of whether, as many trade policy critics argue, the United States really is the world’s least protectionist major economy. But nowhere in his article does the term “non-tariff barriers” appear – a shocking omission given their prevalence and strong growth as global negotiations have reduced tariff rates worldwide.

Finally, Wolf alludes to the canard that America’s national savings rate is overwhelmingly responsible for its bloated trade deficits. In fact, the relationship between the trade and broader current account balances on the one hand, and the savings rate on the other is a mathematical identity. As such, it says nothing whatever about causation – which could easily flow the other way.

It’s understandable that Wolf doesn’t like the Trump tariffs per se – I’ve been critical of them in some respects myself. But the scornful tone of his article, and its utter failure even to consider obvious rejoinders (much less address them) indicates that something deeper is at work here: One of our most thoughtful and knowledgeable economics analyst has come down with a bad case of Trump Derangement Syndrome.