The Trump administration’s announcement last Friday of new tariffs on some metals-using manufactures imports was greeted with the predictable combination of chuckles and gloating from the economists, think tank hacks, and Mainstream Media journalists who keep insisting that all such trade curbs are self-destructive whenever they’re imposed.
If the critics bothered to look at the new official data on multi-factor productivity, however, they’d stop their victory laps in their tracks. For the Labor Department’s latest report on this broadest productivity measure utterly trashes their claims that the tariffs slapped on metals in early 2018 – which unofficially launched the so-called Trump trade wars – have backfired by undercutting most domestic American manufacturing.
In fairness, the Trump administration itself gave the trade and globalization cheerleaders lots of evidence for their triumphalism. Specifically, the levies were justified with statistics showing that various categories of goods made primarily of tariff-ed steel and aluminum had seen major surges of imports since the duties began. The obvious conclusion? Foreign-based producers of these products were capitalizing on their cheaper metals available to their factories to undersell their U.S.-based competition.
As a result, Mr. Trump decided to tariff some of these final products, too – to erase the advantage created for imports from less expensive steel and aluminum.
So in one sense, it’s tough to blame tariff critics for feeling vindicated about predictions that the metals levies might boost the metals-producing sectors themselves, but injure the far larger metals-using sectors. Ditto for their warnings that in an economy with so many connected industries, protection for one or a few would inevitably spur calls for such alleged favoritism by others, threatening a consequent loss of efficiency for all of manufacturing and even the entire economy.
Examine the issue in more detail, though, and you see that it’s entirely possible to arrive at radically different conclusions. For example, the new tariffs appear to be imposed on a limited set of products, and none of them (e.g., nails, tacks, wires, cables, even aluminum auto stampings) qualifies as a major industry. In other words, the chief metals-using industries, like motor vehicles and parts overall, aerospace, industrial machinery (many of which have been complaining loudly about the metals tariffs, even though their overall operational costs have been barely affected) were left out.
Finally in this vein, and as the critics imply, the new Trump tariffs also make the case for trade curbs on any final products whose significant inputs receive duties. Why indeed strap otherwise competitive domestic producers with higher prices for materials, parts, and components? This practice has been a major flaw in the U.S. trade law system, which has prioritized legal over economic and industrial considerations, since its founding. And in fact, my old organization, the U.S. Business and Industry Council, has been urging this reform since at least 2008.
Even better – to prevent cronyism from influencing such trade policy decisions, impose a uniform global tariff on all manufactures, or all non-energy goods.
But it’s just as important to point out a gaping hole in the longstanding argument that cheap imported inputs (including subsidized, and therefore artificially cheap imported inputs) are essential for the overall global competitiveness of U.S. domestic manufacturing. And the hole has been opened (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, reopened, given this previous RealityChek analysis of earlier data) by those new multi-factor productivity statistics.
They only go through 2018 (such time lags explain why multi-factor productivity trends aren’t followed as closely as labor productivity trends). But they’re the broader of the two productivity measures, as they gauge the effect of many inputs other than hours worked. And via the table below, they make clear that even the wide open access domestic manufacturers enjoyed to artificially cheap metals and other imported inputs have played absolutely no evident role in improving industry’s health. In fact, there’s reason to conclude that the more access domestic industry had to such materials, parts, and components, the less productive it became.
Total mfg Durable goods fabr metals
1990s expansion (91-2000): +23.40% +38.76% +4.79%
bubble decade expansion (02-07): +11.74% +16.61% +7.62%
current expansion (10-present): -4.84% -0.84% -4.51%
pre-China WTO (87-2001): +22.18% +37.72% -3.32%
post-China WTO (02-present): +6.72% +17.17% -2.05%
As usual, the time periods chosen to illustrate these trends consist (with one exception) of recent economic expansions (because they enable the best apples-to-apples comparisons to be made). And the 1990s expansion is the first one examined because the relevant Labor Department data only go back to 1987. The products chosen consist of all manufactured goods, durable goods industries (the super-category containing most of the big metals users), and fabricated metals products (the most metals-intensive sectors of all).
The table demonstrates that multi-factor productivity growth across-the-board has weakened dramatically from the 1990s expansion through the current – ongoing – expansion. The slowdown between the 1990s expansion and the previous decade’s expansion was moderate (and multi-factor productivity actually grew faster during the second in fabricated metals, though in absolute terms its improvement lagged badly). But during the current recovery, multi-factor productivity growth has been replaced in all three instances by multi-factor productivity decline. And crucially, during none of this time did any of these manufacturing categories face any shortage of imported inputs of any kind – subsidized or not.
Indeed, one event in 2001 greatly increased the supply of subsidized inputs – China’s admission into the World Trade Organization (WTO). For once China joined, the difficulty of using U.S. trade law to keep these Chinese products out of the U.S. economy became much greater.
Yet at the same time, as shown below, productivity growth was considerably weaker after China’s WTO entry than before in manufacturing overall, and in durable goods. And although its performance actually improved in fabricated metals, that industry’s performance was much worse in absolute terms.
Nor does the inclusion of the 2007-2009 Great Recession in the post-2002 China-related data (which violates the “apples-to-apples rule”) seem to have been a game changer – because the worst performances of all in each case, and by a mile, have been registered during the current expansion. Moreover, since the data stop in 2018, those current expansion results are dominated by the period preceding both the Trump metals tariffs and the Trump China tariffs (most of which target industrial inputs, as opposed to final products).
It’s entirely possible that, for various reasons, the multi-factor productivity statistics would have been even worse if not for the widespread availability of cheap imports. Or maybe multi-factor productivity isn’t much of a measure of manufacturing’s health? Both alternative explanations, however, seem pretty far-fetched (especially given the pre- and post-China WTO results).
Much likelier – as I argued in that post linked above – the availability of cheap inputs has helped retard productivity growth by enabling businesses to achieve cost-savings without investing in research and development into new products and especially processes, and without buying more efficient equipment (including software).