Tariffs may stay in trade toolbox as U.S. reorients
Trumpisinnorushtoend ‘little squabble’ with China
WASHINGTON – President Trump’s tariffs were initially seen as a cudgel to force other countries to drop their trade barriers. But they increasingly look like a more permanent tool to shelter U.S. industry, block imports and banish an undesirable trade deficit.
More than two years into the Trump administration, the United States has emerged as a nation with the highest tariff rate among developed countries, outranking Canada, Germany and France, as well as China, Russia and Turkey. And with further trade confrontations brewing, the rate may only increase from here.
On Tuesday, the president continued to tout his trade war with China, saying that the 25% tariffs he imposed on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods would benefit the United States, and that he was looking “very strongly” at imposing additional levies on nearly every Chinese import.
“I think it’s going to turn out extremely well. We’re in a very strong position,”
Trump said in remarks from the White House lawn. “Our economy is fantastic; theirs is not so good. We’ve gone up trillions and trillions of dollars since the election; they’ve gone way down since my election.”
He called the trade dispute “a little squabble” and suggested he was in no rush to end his fight, though he held out the possibility an agreement could be reached, saying: “They want to make a deal. It could absolutely happen.” Stock markets rebounded Tuesday, after plunging Monday as China and the United States resumed their tariff war.
Additional tariffs could be on the way. Trump faces a Friday deadline to determine whether the U.S. will proceed with his threat to impose global auto tariffs, a move that has been criticized by car companies and foreign policymakers. And despite complaints by Republican lawmakers and U.S. companies, Trump’s global metal tariffs remain in place on Canada, Mexico, Europe and other allies.
The trade barriers are putting the United States, previously a steadfast advocate of global free trade, in an unfamiliar position. The country now has the highest overall trade-weighted tariff rate at 4.2%, higher than any of the Group of 7 industrialized nations, according to Torsten Slok, the chief economist of Deutsche Bank Securities. That is more than twice as high as the rate for Canada, Britain, Italy, Germany and France, and higher than most emerging markets, including Russia, Turkey and even China, Slok said.
The shift is having consequences for an American economy that is dependent on global trade, including multinational companies like Boeing, General Motors, Apple, Caterpillar and other businesses that source components from abroad and want access to growing markets overseas.
While trade accounts for a smaller percentage of the U.S. economy than in most other countries – just 27% in 2017, compared with 38% for China and 87% for Germany, according to World Bank data – it is still a critical driver of jobs and economic growth.
Trump and his economic advisers say the administration’s trade policy is aiding the U.S. economy, companies and consumers. And despite the tough approach, the administration continues to insist its goal is to strike trade agreements that give U.S. businesses better trade terms overseas.
Last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin praised Trumps’ trade policies for helping economic growth thus far and said the administration supports “free and fair reciprocal trade.”
But if the goal is freer trade, the administration has never been further from achieving that goal than it is today, said Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “They’re heading in the opposite direction,” Bown said.
Beyond an update to the U.S. agreement with South Korea, no other free trade deals have been finalized. Trump’s revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico still await passage in Congress, while trade talks with the European Union and Japan have been troubled from the start, with governments squabbling over the scope of the agreement.
The easier explanation, said Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is to take Trump at his word that he is a protectionist. “Those are the words they’re using, and those are the actions they’re taking,” he said.
While the United States and China could still strike a trade deal that would roll back many of their tariffs, that likelihood has appeared to diminish in recent weeks. Progress toward a deal came to a sudden halt this month when China backtracked on certain commitments and Trump threatened to move ahead with higher tariffs.
“We had a deal that was very close, and then they broke it,” he said Tuesday.
The two sides to disagree over whether the deal’s provisions must be enshrined in China’s laws. But they are also arguing over Trump’s tariffs, which were intended to prod the Chinese to agree to more favorable trade terms for the U.S. China insists those tariffs must come off once a deal is reached, but the Trump administration wants some to remain in place, to ensure China abides by its commitments.