Putting the tariffs in context

The Trump administration first announced it was imposing import tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium―products that together represent less than 2% of total U.S. imports. And even that estimate is high, as Canada, Mexico, and other allies including the European Union have been temporarily exempted.

On March 22, 2018, the administration announced a package of tariffs and trade penalties on imported goods from China. As with the tariffs on steel and aluminium, these taxes would likely affect only a small fraction of bilateral trade between the world’s 2 largest economies.

To better understand what escalation of these disputes might look like, it’s helpful to consider trade in a historical and global context.

U.S. tariffs have been falling since the 1930s and have been below 5% for more than 4 decades, as shown below. According to the World Trade Organization’s latest report on tariffs, the current average U.S. tariff is 3.5%, the second-lowest in the G20.

Note: Data shown are annual from 1900 to 2015.
Source: U.S. International Trade Commission.

Although the United States has in place nontariff trade measures such as antidumping and national security safeguards, it remains one of the world’s least protectionist countries, alongside the members of the European Union.

Some market observers extrapolate the policy tilt of the tariffs to mark the onset of a trade war, similar to the vicious cycle sparked by the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. That act dramatically reduced trade flows and economic growth in the early years of the Great Depression.

Given the history of lowering trade barriers and realizing the benefits of economic integration, we believe it’s unlikely that the current administration will dramatically shift trade policy at the risk of disrupting domestic growth.

Benefits of a slight rise in tariffs fast diminish

Although we assign a trade war scenario a low probability, Vanguard’s analysis in a 2017 Global Macro Matters research paper (Trade status: It’s complicatedestimated the impact of varying escalations in trade tensions. A slight increase in tariffs has a short-term marginal benefit to the issuing economy in the absence of retaliation. These benefits quickly diminish, however, and can be offset by retaliatory tariffs and market volatility.

With tariff increases offsetting one another, the end result would be higher consumer prices and lower growth from reduced trade activity―a lose-lose scenario.

Although unlikely, a trade war environment could reduce U.S. gross domestic product by 1.7 percentage points and increase inflation by 0.4 percentage points annually. In this case, the impact would be significant enough to force the Federal Reserve to pause its tightening cycle and choose between suppressing excessive inflation and bolstering low growth.

Tariff fallout could put the U.S. in lagging position

Outside of these estimates of the direct impact on the U.S. economy, reduced cooperation on trade over the next few years could hurt cross-border investment flows and place the United States in a lagging rather than a leading position in future economic and political partnerships.

Investors can reasonably assume that trade rhetoric will remain a source of volatility throughout 2018 as the Trump administration tries to set a new course on trade policy without triggering retaliation from partners.

Although trade wars are still a low likelihood, it’s worthwhile to closely monitor policy decisions and the responses of trading partners for signs of escalation.


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