Pundits like the Washington Post‘s Catherine Rampell have every right to warn that President Trump’s metals (and other) tariffs will ultimately harm the U.S. economy more than it helps. What they have no right to do is peddle demonstrably false claims like her contention that because of the price hikes so far seen for steel and aluminum since these levies came onto the American trade agenda earlier this year, companies reliant on these materials for their final products “are now less competitive.”
I call these claims demonstrably false because every month, the U.S. government publishes detailed statistics on the nation’s trade performance, and the data through April contain absolutely no evidence that domestic metals-using industries are on the ropes – or anywhere close.
Let’s examine what seems to be the national chattering class’ and policy establishment’s favorite measure of industrial competitiveness: American exports. If the Trump tariffs have indeed been pushing U.S. metals-using industries close to the ash heap of economic history, then their overseas sales for the first few months of this year (the tariffs became likely when the Commerce Department officially recommended them in mid-February), should be much lower than they were the first few months of last year – or at least growing much more slowly.
In fact, just the opposite has been seen, at least when it comes to three major sectors of the economy that are especially heavy users of steel and aluminum – transportation equipment, non-electrical machinery, and fabricated metals products.
Over the first four months of this year (the latest data available), America’s global exports in these categories were not only 5.83 percent greater than over the same period in 2017. The year-to-date growth rate was some 7.2 times higher than that for 2017 (0.81 percent).
Perhaps more significant, the difference between the January-April, 2018 export growth rates for these metals-using industries and their January-April, 2017 growth rates was much greater than for American manufacturing as a whole. During the first four months of 2018, total U.S. manufacturing exports have grown 7.45 percent year-to-date. That’s higher in absolute terms than the export growth for the metals-using industries, but this export increase has been only 2.12 times faster than their export growth rate for January-April, 2017 (3.52 percent).
But what about my favorite measure of American competitiveness – trade balances and how they’ve changed? I focus on these two-way flows because the theory of comparative advantage at the heart of all justifications for the freest possible global trade makes sense only if these surpluses and deficits have consequences for global production patterns.
After all, comparative advantage holds that trade is the best possible way to create the best possible global division of labor – meaning that in a world of unfettered commerce, countries that trade products and services most successfully will inevitably wind up making those products and providing those services most successfully, and that all countries will benefit on net. And the countries that trade products and services most successfully are those that amass the biggest surpluses in those products and services. The opposite propositions logically hold the impact of running deficits in various sectors.
As it happens, the trade balance figures don’t show or presage any apocalypse for America’s metals-using industries, either. During the first four months of 2017, their cumulative trade deficit with the rest of the world increased by 10.56 percent on year. For the comparable period this year, the deficit’s year-to-date growth rate was faster: 11.64 percent. But clearly, this trade shortfall didn’t grow much faster.
The comparison with trade deficits for manufacturing as a whole is instructive as well. During January-April, 2017, this trade gap increased by 10.19 percent on year. During January-April, 2018, the figure was 10.85 percent.
So the metals-using industries’ trade deficit did grow faster during both periods than the shortfall for manufacturing as a whole. But the difference in the rate of acceleration has been trivial. In the metals-using sectors, the deficit during the first four months of 2018 grew 1.10 times faster than it grew during the first four months of 2017. For manufacturing as a whole, the deficit during the first four months of 2018 grew 1.06 times faster than during the same period in 2017.
I’d be the last to argue that this situation will never change. The Trump metals tariffs haven’t been imposed very long. Moreover, they’ve been phased in, so the full impact of their final (for now!), most sweeping version hasn’t yet been felt.
Nonetheless, the effects could also be swamped by the benefits metals-using sectors have gained from the new corporate tax cuts and the regulatory relief offered by the Trump administration – two policies that industry as a whole has hailed enthusiastically as major boosters of competitiveness.
What should be unmistakably clear, though, is that claims that U.S. metals-using industries are already suffering from the Trump steel and aluminum are no better than Fake News – and deserve nothing more than scorn from all fair-minded readers.