If you’re confused by President Trump’s latest China tariffs moves, don’t feel bad. They’re really confusing!
Much clearer is their main implication: Once more, the President has needlessly let China off the trade war hook – and significantly reduced the odds of U.S. success no matter how it’s defined.
To summarize the chain of announcements and decisions that have produced the present situation: As of August 1, in various stages, the United States had imposed 25 percent tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods imports from China based on the latest data. And on May 5, Mr. Trump threatened to place tariffs of 25 percent on the rest of China’s merchandise shipments to the United States (about $300 billion worth).
That announcement was seen as especially significant because the previous tariffs mainly hit what businesses and economist call “producer goods” or “intermediate goods.” They’re the parts, components, and materials that companies use to produce final products, including consumer products. As a result, even when they do lead to higher consumer prices, the role played by these duties is difficult for consumers (i.e., voters) to identify, much less complain about to the politicians responsible.
In addition, as I’ve frequently noted (e.g., here), tariffs on these producer goods often don’t lead to any inflation, or much inflation, at all, for a variety of reasons and combinations of reasons. In many instances, retailers and other businesses simply lack the needed pricing power. As a result, they often seek to persuade their entire supply chain to preserve market share by eating some or all of the higher prices and accepting lower profits. Alternatively, various parts of the supply chain – including the final customer – can try to offset tariff-induced price increases by boosting productivity. That’s actually good for the economy in the long run, as improved efficiency not only enables companies to absorb cost increases while maintaining and even increasing margins. Such better productivity tends to spur the development of new efficiency-enhancing products, services, and technologies – a great way to boost living standards in a healthy, sustainable way.
Yet the May Trump $300 billion threat – which stemmed from the President’s unhappiness with the lack of progress in the trade talks with China – would have finally hit most consumer goods imports. Therefore, it would have created the risk that shoppers would blame the President for any price increases they did encounter. Even worse, the timing of the threat practically ensured that these higher prices would start appearing just as holiday shopping heated up – or typically heats up.
In late June, however, after meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a global summit in Japan, Mr. Trump agreed to a trade truce and to hold off on the $300 billion threat. Two weeks later, though the threat was back on the table, according to a Trump tweet.
On August 1, following a new round of apparently unsuccessful trade negotiations and the President’s belief that China had broken a promise connect with the late June trade truce to buy more American farm products, Mr. Trump specified that ten percent tariffs on the $300 billion worth of consumer goods-dominated imports from China would begin on September 1. Just four days later, his administration announced another “hawkish” trade war decision – officially designating China as a country that manipulated its currency to gain trade advantages (by keeping its products artificially cheap and therefore making goods and services from trade competitors artificially expensive in comparison). At the same time, the currency decision by law doesn’t automatically result in new tariffs, although it could eventually bring about some other penalties.
And yesterday came the latest turnaround: Mr. Trump decided to postpone tariffs on an estimated $160 billion of the $300 billion from September 1 to December 15. Not coincidentally, as his remarks on benefiting holiday shoppers made clear, many of the items on the postponement list included particularly popular gift items like toys and smartphones.
In addition, tariffs on some $30 billion worth of imports from China would be lifted permanently (at least for now!). But new duties on some $110 billion worth of imports from China are at this point slated to go into effect at the beginning of next month, and this group, too, is dominated by consumer goods.
Commentators focusing on the postponed goods called the latest Trump move a cave to China spurred by the President’s fears of a falling stock market, weakening U.S. economy, and angry consumers. Others, pointing to the products that will be slapped with new levies, and to the continuation of previously announced tariffs, insisted that Mr. Trump was keeping considerable pressure on the Chinese.
I lean toward the former interpretation, for these reasons. First, there’s no sign that the President’s forbearance has won any concessions from China. Second, the tight Trump focus on appeasing holiday shoppers can only signal weakness to Beijing, and feed its hopes that it can prevail in the trade and broader economic conflict by waiting for the President to be replaced by a more conventional, more pliable chief executive in 2020. Third, the delay announcement came just before a batch of absolutely terrible economic data was released by China. And given Beijing’s history of publishing overly bullish figures, it’s a safe bet that its economy is even weaker than most recently indicated. Fourth, Xi Jinping is under pressure not only economically, but politically, due to the rising unrest in Hong Kong.
Fifth, it’s true that from the standpoint of China’s longer-term prospects, maintaining the tariffs on its producer goods matters crucially. For this category includes most of the high tech and other advanced manufactures that represent any economy’s hope for continued technological progress, and therefore faster, healthier growth and a stronger military. But the consumer goods matter politically – because since they’re largely labor-intensive in nature, they’re mass employers. And China’s dictators view high unemployment as a mortal danger to their rule.
Sixth, although it’s clear that U.S. investors hate the trade war, the President needs to remember that, however much he likes to tout the stock market as a barometer of his economic performance, these markets and the real economy are by no means identical. We’ll be getting some key economic data tomorrow, when the Federal Reserve releases its new report on industrial (including manufacturing) production. But so far, the manufacturing numbers have shown that, after a soft patch in the winter, both inflation-adjusted output and capital spending are trending upward again. So unless these and other upcoming data break notably from their most recent patterns, recession – and even further slowdown – predictions will keep looking far-fetched.
Importantly, none of the above analysis means that I’ve changed my view that no China trade deal acceptable for U.S. interests is possible because of insurmountable verification obstacles. Instead, America’s only realistic option is to keep disengaging economically from China – both to reduce U.S. economic reliance on an increasingly hostile power, and to weaken further the only country capable of posing noteworthy national security threats. As a result, however, Washington should pass up no opportunity to inflict pain on China’s economy. And although no one would be shocked if he reversed course yet again before too long, that’s exactly the mistake that President Trump just made with his latest China tariffs delay.