As RealityChek readers may have noted, I haven’t followed the U.S. government data on import prices for a while. That’s been because global trade has been so upended for the last two-plus years by the CCP Virus pandemic and the supply chain turmoil it’s fostered. Three big recent developments warrant returning to import price numbers, though.
First, President Biden has confirmed that he and his administration is seriously considering lowering tariffs on imports from China in order to help fight inflation. Second, since early March, China has dramatically driven down the value of its currency, the yuan. Since the yuan’s value is controlled by the Chinese government, rather than trading freely, Beijing has been giving its exports price advantages over all the competition (and in the U.S. and other foreign markets as well as in its own) for reasons having nothing to do with free trade or free markets. Third, new import price statistics just came out this morning.
And developments number two and three make clearer than ever that blaming the China tariffs for any of the torrid price increases afflicting American consumers or businesses is the worst kind of fakeonomics.
In a previous post, I explained why the scant actual tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump on Chinese-made consumer goods and remaining on them, and the negligible portion of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) they represented, couldn’t possibly move the inflation needle notably.
Further, there’s the timing issue: The Trump tariffs imposed under Section 301 of U.S. trade law were slapped on in stages between March, 2018 and August, 2019. And by their nature, each of them could only generate a one-time price change. Yet consumer inflation in America didn’t take off until early 2021. Obviously, something(s) else was (were) responsible.
China’s currency moves, moreover, show that any Biden tariff-cutting will only add more artificial price edges to those Beijing is already creating for itself – thereby recreating some of the predatory Chinese pressure that competing U.S. employers and workers had long endured before the relief granted by Trump’s tariffs.
Since early March, the yuan has weakened by fully 7.75 percent versus the dollar. And with China’s leaders facing a substantial economic slowdown that could challenge the Communist Party’s political legitimacy, don’t expect Beijing to abandon quickly any practice that could prop up growth and employment.
Those new U.S. import price data reveal that the yuan’s depreciation hasn’t much affected China’s (government-made) competitiveness yet. But as indicated by the chart below, it soon will. As you can see, for years, the prices of Chinese imports entering the American market and the yuan’s value have risen and fallen pretty much in tandem.
In addition, according to the new import price statistics, over the past year (April to April), import prices from China have risen much more slowly (4.6 percent) than the prices of the closest global proxy, total American non-fuel imports (7.2 percent). And the Trump tariffs should be singled out as a meaningful inflation engine?
Of course, these price trends could be cited to argue that these tariffs had no notable impact on U.S. competitiveness at all. But U.S. Census data show that, between the first quarter of 2018 (when the first Section 301 Trump tariffs were imposed), and the first quarter of this year, goods imports from China fell from 2.44 percent of the U.S. economy to 2.26 percent. (And this despite a big surge in American purchases of CCP Virus-fighting goods from the People’s Republic due to Washington’s long-time neglect of the nation’s health security and the secure supply chains it requires.) During this same period, total non-oil goods imports (the closest global proxy) increased as a share of the economy from 11.35 percent to 12.41 percent. So the Trump policies must have had some not-negligible effect.
The case for reducing the China tariffs is feeble enough even without these inflation points. After all, the Chinese economy is running into significant trouble due to its over-the-top Zero Covid policy, the deflation of its immense property bubble, and dictator Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the country’s tech sector. So the last thing on Washington’s mind should be throwing Beijing a tariff lifeline. Boosting China’s export revenue also means boosting the amount of resources available to the armed forces of this aggressive, hostile great power. And none of the tariff-cutting proposals is conditioned on any reciprocal concessions from China.
Citing bogus inflation arguments is the icing on this rancid cake, meaning the tariff-cutting proposal can’t be dropped fast enough.