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The Risk of Trump's Trade War Is More Than Just Higher Prices

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Tags Booms and BustsGlobal EconomyProtectionism and Free Trade

Following President Trump’s imposition of 25% tariffs on all Chinese imports, it is time to assesses the consequences. Already, we have seen a contraction in US-China trade of 20% in the first three months of 2019 compared with the same quarter last year, and also compared with the average outturn for the whole of 2018. This contraction was worse than that which followed the Lehman crisis.

In assessing the extent of the impact of Trump’s tariffs on the US economy, we must take into account a number of inter-related factors. Clearly, higher prices to US consumers will hit Chinese imports, which explains why they have dropped 20% so far, and why they will likely drop even more. Interestingly, US exports to China fell by the same percentage, though they are about one quarter of China’s exports to the US. 

These inter-related factors are, but not limited to:

  • The effect of the new tariff increases on trade volumes
  • The effect on US consumer prices
  • The effect on US production costs of tariffs on imported Chinese components
  • The consequences of retaliatory action on US exports to China
  • The recessionary impact of all the above on GDP
  • The consequences for the US budget deficit, allowing for likely tariff income to the US Treasury.

These are only first-order effects in what becomes an iterative process, and will be accompanied and followed by:

  • Reassessment of business plans in the light of market information
  • A tendency for bank credit to contract as banks anticipate heightened lending risk
  • Liquidation of financial assets held by banks as collateral
  • Foreign liquidation of USD assets and deposits
  • The government’s borrowing requirement increasing unexpectedly
  • Bond yields rising to discount increasing price inflation
  • Banks facing increasing difficulties and the re-emergence of systemic risk.

We can expect two stages. The first will be characterized by monetary expansion will little apparent effect on price inflation. Putting aside statistical manipulation of price indices, this is the current situation and has been since the Lehman crisis. It will be followed by a second phase, following an acceleration of currency debasement. It will be characterized by increasing price inflation, and ultimately the collapse of purchasing power for unbacked fiat currencies.

Unintended Consequences

Obviously, being a tax on imports, tariffs benefit the Treasury’s finances; a fact which President Trump continually boasts about. To be precise, a 25% tariff on all Chinese imports in the remaining five months of the current fiscal year (based on the first quarter of 2019) can be expected to raise $45bn, which reduces the Office of Management’s budget deficit estimate of $1,092bn1 for fiscal 2019 to $1,047bn. The tax benefit is therefore relatively minor, and likely to be more than offset by the recessionary consequences of higher tariffs on government tax revenues and welfare costs. This article will go into more detail why this is so.

If, for a moment, we assume there will be a limited impact on consumer demand from increased tariffs, the effect on prices at the margin would be to drive them sharply higher for all consumer goods in the product categories where Chinese supply is a factor, with some spill-over into others. Price inflation would simply begin to escalate. But given the indebtedness of the average American consumer, the ability to pay higher prices is obviously restricted, suggesting that overall demand must suffer, not just for imported Chinese goods, but for domestically-produced goods as well. It is therefore likely there will be both an impact on price inflation and a fall in consumer demand.

Besides the effect on consumers, manufacturers relying on part-manufactured Chinese imports and processed commodities now face cost pressures from tariffs which they may or may not be able to pass on to consumers. The cost pressures on manufacturers are bound to lead to a reassessment of their business models. This will be communicated to their bankers as increased lending risk, and they in turn will almost certainly restrict credit availability. The credit cycle would then move rapidly into a contractionary phase as both businesses and their bankers take fright.

Anyone who has analyzed post-war credit cycles will be familiar with these dynamics. We are probably not there yet, despite the warning shot from financial markets in the fourth quarter of 2018. For now, the initial softening of consumer demand has led to a general assumption that monetary policy will ease sufficiently to prevent little more than a mild recession, benefiting capital values. Government bond yields have eased, and arbitrage across bond markets has ensured investment grade corporate bond yields have declined as well. Since end-November when the central banks began to ease monetary policy, the effective yield on investment grade corporate bonds, reported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has fallen from 4.8% to 4%. This is hardly an assessment of increasing lending risk.

As well as bond markets, equity markets are also expecting monetary easing, instead of a gathering crisis, and have rallied along with bonds. Clearly, financial markets have not noted the seriousness of trade protectionism, having become complacent while trade restrictions have generally eased in recent decades. However, market historians will note that this brief recovery phase was also the pattern in stock markets between October 1929, when the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was passed by Congress, and April 1930, two months before President Hoover signed it into law. If the correlation with that period continues, equities could be in for a substantial fall (in 1929-32 it was 88% top to bottom). 

In the Wall Street Crash, equities fell as collateral was liquidated into falling markets. Non-financial assets, such as property, similarly lost value and productive assets (plant, machinery etc.) failed to generate anticipated cash flows. This nightmare was famously described by Irving Fisher, and has continued to frighten economists ever since.

While debt was a problem in 1929, it was generally confined to corporate borrowers and speculators. Today’s context of Fisher’s nightmare is in record levels of government, corporate and consumer debt. The potential disruption from the unwinding of the credit cycle is therefore worse today. Trump’s trade protectionism so far is targeted at one country, unlike Smoot-Hawley which was across the board. At first glance, Smoot Hawley was more dangerous, but it is the lethal combination of tariffs and the end of the expansionary phase of the credit cycle which should concern us.

  • 1. Budget of the US Government Fiscal Year 2020, Table S-1 (page 107)

Alasdair Macleod is the Head of Research at GoldMoney.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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