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Updated on Thursday, September 20, 2018
President Donald Trump made good on his threat of imposing tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese-made goods when he announced Monday that a 10% duty will take effect Sept. 24, rising to 25% by the beginning of next year.
The silver lining: The later timing avoids Christmas morning meltdowns from kids who missed out on trendy electronic gadgets due to increased prices. The bad news? This may not be the end of the trade war. China reacted to Monday’s announcement with talk of retaliation, which led President Trump to threaten further tariffs on another $267 billion worth of Chinese imports. That would bring the total value of Chinese goods subject to tariffs to more than $500 billion, virtually all Chinese imports.
For now, the administration removed nearly 300 items from the original proposed list, a nod to U.S. companies’ concerns since Trump first threatened tariffs this summer. Popular consumer electronics products such as smartwatches and Bluetooth devices are among those that dodged the higher tariffs. Some consumer safety products, such as bicycle helmets, baby car seats and playpens also were taken off the list.
It could be worse for consumers, but …
The tariffs account for nearly 40% of the $505 billion in Chinese items the U.S. imports annually. Although they will start at a more subdued 10% level, eventually, American consumers will keenly feel the pain from the swath of stiff tariffs on thousands of goods as varied as fish, baseball gloves, luggage, dog leashes, furniture, lamps and mattresses.
“What the tariffs will do is basically cause many people to pay more for whatever they buy in the stores,” said Gary Hufbauer, economist and nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It could be worse … 25% is a lot different than 10%.” The PIIE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan economics research institution in Washington, D.C.
“[They thought they might have to pay] $8 for that new T-shirt, they may pay $7, whereas previously it was $5,” Hufbauer said, giving an example.
Before excluding the 300 items, almost 23% of the targeted items on Trump’s $200 billion list were consumer products, according to a July PIIE analysis. By comparison, consumer products made up just 1% of the initial $50 billion worth of Chinese products Trump put into place earlier in the summer.
Why Trump takes a step back
Delaying the full 25% duty is an attempt to mitigate potential political and economic consequences ahead of the midterm election, said Hufbauer.
For one, Hufbauer said, Trump does not want to see the stock market tank before November.
“Many of his supporters own shares, and they would blame him because they thought the stock market was dropping because of his foreign policy, his trade wars,” Hufbauer said.
The U.S. stock market on Tuesday closed higher as investors shrugged off escalating trade tensions.
There is also a concern that if high tariffs are slapped on Chinese imports, American manufacturers that import components from China may have to pay higher prices for those parts or worse, lay off workers as a result. Even though consumers don’t buy parts directly, they end up being incorporated or assembled into products that consumers eventually buy. Manufacturers must either pass along the increased cost to consumers or find other ways to cut expenses.
“Those stories are not good for a person going into an election,” Hufbauer said.
What’s at stake
When the tariffs are at the 25% level, economists estimate that consumers will have to bear about half — 12.5% to 15%— while the rest is absorbed by the producer or manufacturer.
Those who have purchased washing machines this year may have already understood how tariffs affect consumer product prices. The price of imported washing machines shot up 16.4%, three months after the Trump administration imposed 20%-50% tariffs in February, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank.
There are also indirect impacts, which may emerge more slowly, as 47% of the $200 billion tariff list comprises tens of billions of dollars of intermediate inputs — those parts and components of final products we mentioned earlier — imported from China. Consumers will likely have to spend more on items assembled with parts imported from China that are subject to high tariffs.
Trump has been tough on trade since he was on the presidential campaign trail. He has accused China of practicing unfair trade policies, such as forcing U.S. firms to transfer technology to Chinese counterparts. Supporters of the new tariffs hope it will persuade China to play fairer on trade. Even critics agree that China has in some ways stymied growth in U.S. industries, but they also criticize Trump’s protectionist trade policy and say it will ultimately hurt industries and individuals in both countries.
It’s possible Trump will act on his rhetoric and continue to wage a trade war against China, economists said. But Hufbauer thinks Trump is trying to pressure China into making concessions ahead of the upcoming trade talks between Beijing and Washington.
If Beijing is willing to make concessions on some of the main issues Trump raised, the trade tensions could be dialed back a bit, Hufbauer said. “I don’t think we’re going to get into a happy friendly time,” he said. “But I think we could reduce the confrontation a lot if China decides to make some concessions.”
However, if 25% tariffs are imposed on total trade in both directions, then we would enter a full-blown trade war we haven’t seen since the 1930s. In that case, economists said American companies that rely on global supply chains will hold off on investment decisions due to the uncertainty around global trade, which will negatively affect the U.S. economy and eventually cause the unemployment rate to swing up.
“Using the terminology of war, Trump’s misguided trade war is generating lots of collateral damage and friendly fire that is putting [America’s] companies, workers and consumers at great risk,” said Mark Perry, an economics policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and professor of finance and business economics at the University of Michigan-Flint.