Trump’s stunning decision to escalate trade wars with China and Mexico signals a turning point for U.S. policy

President Trump’s plan to slap new tariffs on Mexican imports, weeks after escalating his trade war with China, leaves the United States fighting a multi-front campaign that threatens more instability for manufacturers, consumers and the global economy.

The president’s bombshell announcement that he would impose 5 percent tariffs on Mexican imports, with the possibility of raising them to 25 percent if Mexico doesn’t stop migrants from crossing into the United States, left some economists fearing there were few limits to Trump’s appetite for trade conflict.

“In our view, if the U.S. is willing to impose tariff and non-tariff barriers on China and Mexico, then the bar for tariffs on other important U.S. trading partners, including Europe, may be lower than we previously thought,” Barclays economists said in a research note. “We think trade tensions could escalate further before they de-escalate,” Barclays added.

Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, called Trump’s move against Mexico a turning point for financial markets and the U.S. economy.

In global markets Friday, investors spooked by new tariff threats sought safety in German government bonds and the Euro rather than their customary dollar-denominated havens. This “seems to me an indicator that the concerns about the U.S. are rising,” Posen said.

The president’s latest move rocked business leaders who were already scrambling to reshape supply chains to avoid fallout from the U.S. confrontation with China. The added uncertainty may paralyze executives who can’t be sure their next supply chain location will be any safer than their last.

“A lot of companies feeling pressure to get out of China are looking at Mexico if they want to serve the US market, Vietnam if they’re more focused on Asia,” said William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department trade official. “Trump’s action yesterday scrambles all those plans.”

In one example of a company caught in the crossfire, GoPro of San Mateo, Calif., last month announced it would move manufacturing of some of its cameras from China to Mexico, so that it could stop paying tariffs to import them to the United States — tariffs resulting from the U.S. trade war with China. Weeks later, GoPro now faces new tariffs to import those goods from Mexico. The company declined to comment Friday.

As U.S. companies race to find new tariff-free places to manufacture, so far few have reported returning production to the United States, despite the president’s stated aim of using trade policy to help bring jobs back home. Many are still seeking alternative locations overseas, where labor is cheaper.

Trump said he would impose the new tariffs because the Mexican government wasn’t doing enough to stem the flow of migrants, many of whom travel through Mexico from Central America. Some White House officials who support Trump’s approach believe the threat of tariffs is the only way to get the attention of Mexican leaders.

The Mexican government tried to defuse the tension Friday, saying the two sides would meet in Washington on Wednesday for high-level talks.

If no solution is found, Mexico is certain to impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods, with likely targets including U.S. pork, beef, wheat and dairy products, said Former Mexican diplomat Jorge Guajardo.

Some prominent Republicans, including Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, raised concerns that the new tariffs could threaten a trade agreement the Trump administration clinched only months ago with Mexico and Canada, to replace the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Others said the about-face treatment of Mexico would damage Trump’s ability to negotiate trade deals it is pursuing with other partners, including China and Europe.

“You can’t negotiate a trade agreement with someone and then turn around and whack them,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist and former Congressional Budget Office director.

In late March, Trump threatened to shut the entire southern border to curb illegal immigration, but backed down a week later after an outcry. That has left some wondering how seriously they should take the latest tariff threat.

If Trump follows through with new tariffs on Mexico, it would hurt U.S. economic growth and increase the possibility of the Federal Reserve reversing course and cutting interest rates this year, economists said.

The drag to the US economy could be meaningful, especially if the tariffs reach 25%,” the upper limit that Trump has set, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists wrote Friday. Even if the tariff remains at 5 percent, the effective cost could be higher because many parts cross the border several times as products are assembled, and the tariff must be paid upon each crossing into the United States.

U.S. automakers will be among the principal casualties. Last year, the United States imported roughly $350 billion in merchandise from Mexico, including about $85 billion in vehicles and parts, according to the International Trade Administration.

A full 25 percent tax “would cripple the industry and cause major uncertainty,” according to Deutsche Bank Securities.

“The auto sector – and the 10 million jobs it supports – relies upon the North American supply chain and cross border commerce to remain globally competitive,” said Dave Schwietert, interim president of the Auto Alliance, an industry group. “This is especially true with auto parts which can cross the U.S. border multiple times before final assembly.”

“Widely applied tariffs on goods from Mexico will raise the price of motor vehicle parts, cars, trucks, and commercial vehicles – and consumer goods in general — for American consumers,” the industry group said. “The potential ripple effects of the proposed Mexican tariffs on the U.S. North American and global trade efforts could be devastating.”

Consumers could pay up to $1,300 more per vehicle if the tariffs are implemented, according to Torsten Slok, chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities.

Retailers, technology companies and textile manufacturers also will be hurt. U.S. mills now ship yarn and fabric to Mexico, where it is turned into apparel and exported back to American retailers. Last year, the U.S. textile industry exported $4.7 billion in yarn and fabrics to Mexico, its largest single market.

“Adding tariffs to Mexican apparel imports, which largely contain U.S. textile inputs, would significantly disrupt this industry and jeopardize jobs on both sides of the border,” said Kim Glas, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations.

The new dispute with Mexico came as the U.S.-China trade conflict continued to deepen.

China on Friday announced it would establish a blacklist of “unreliable” foreign companies and organizations, effectively forcing companies around the world to choose whether they would side with Beijing or Washington.

The new “unreliable entities list” would punish organizations and individuals that harm the interests of Chinese companies, Chinese state media reported, without detailing which companies will be named in the list or what the punishment will entail.

Chinese reports suggested the Commerce Ministry will target foreign companies and groups that abandoned Chinese telecom giant Huawei after the Trump administration added Huawei to a trade blacklist this month, which prohibited the sale of U.S. technology to the Chinese company.

At a time when Western corporations have cut back executive travel to China after authorities detained two Canadians on national security grounds in December, the new blacklist sent another shock wave through the business community.

“I think foreign and especially U.S. firms now have to worry that China is creating a new ‘legal pretext’ to at least impose exit bans on foreign individuals who make this new list, if not worse,” said Bill Bishop, the editor of the Sinocism newsletter, referring to the Chinese practice of not allowing designated foreigners to leave China.

Aside from the new blacklist, China in recently days also escalated threats to stop selling the U.S. so-called rare earths — 17 elements with exotic names like cerium, yttrium and lanthanum that are found in magnets, alloys and fuel cells and are used to make advanced missiles, smartphones and jet engines.

Analysts said it could take years for the United States to ramp up rare-earths production, after its domestic industry practically disappeared in the 1990s. Roughly 80 percent of U.S. imports of the material come from China, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, carried a stark warning for the United States this week in an editorial about rare earths: “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

That commentary surprised China experts because the People’s Daily, which often signals official positions with subtly codified language, uses that phrase sparingly: It famously appeared before China launched border attacks against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979.

How Goes the Trade War?

Consumers, not foreigners, are paying the Trump tariffs.

Say this for Donald Trump: He’s provided us with many iconic quotations, which will surely be repeated in histories and textbooks for decades if not generations to come. Unfortunately, they’ll be repeated because they are extremely clear examples of bad ideas.

In economics, the line you hear most is Trump’s declaration that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” Coming in second is his assertion that “I am a Tariff Man,” coupled with the claim that foreigners pay the tariffs he has been imposing.

Now, that last claim is something you can test. Over the course of 2018 Trump imposed tariffs on about 12 percent of total U.S. imports, and many of those tariffs have been in effect long enough that we can get a first read on their consequences.

On Saturday economists from Columbia, Princeton, and the New York Federal Reserve released a paper, “The impact of the 2018 trade war on U.S. prices and welfare,” that used detailed import data to assess the tariffs’ impact. (The paper, by the way, is a beautiful piece of work.) The conclusion: to a first approximation, foreigners paid none of the bill, U.S. companies and consumers paid all of it. And the losses to U.S. consumers exceeded the revenue from the new tariffs, so the tariffs made America poorer overall.

How did they get this result? The U.S. government collects data on the prices and quantities of many categories of imports. Many of these categories faced new tariffs, but many others didn’t. So you can compare what happened to the tariffed imports to the de facto control group of untouched imports; this tells you the impact of the tariffs.

Under Trump’s vision, in which foreigners would have paid the tariffs, what you would have expected to see is falling prices for tariffed goods, offsetting the tariff, so that consumer prices didn’t change. What you actually see, however, is no visible effect of the tariffs on import prices. So foreign suppliers don’t seem to have absorbed any of the tariffs, which were fully passed on to consumers; tariff-inclusive prices (Figure 1) have risen by the full amounts of the tariffs.

The trade war is already over

The Chinese and U.S. economies are likely to slow in 2019, giving President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping no choice but to declare a truce in their ferocious trade battle, according to a top Wall Street strategist.

“I think personally that the trade war is coming to an end and there is really nothing Trump can do about it,” Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at The Leuthold Group, said in the latest edition of the POLITICO Money podcast. “If you have the United States and China both with very weak economies, the negotiation around trade just evaporates. Neither party has any negotiating power left. They both have to stop what they are doing.”

.. Paulsen said he doesn’t believe that Trump, who loves to extol a rising market, will want to risk the kind of crash that could occur if talks fall apart. “I think fairly soon we are going to see an announcement between China and Trump,” he said. “I think it will amount, basically, to a hill of beans. But it will be a face-saving announcement of something being done.”

More broadly, Paulsen said he thought recent market volatility and sharp declines were actually a good thing. He said he believes investors are panicking about a global recession that isn’t actually coming: “One of the good things we’ve got going on, I would say, as an investor, is we’ve got people freaking out. I think that’s a good thing.”

China is Losing the New Cold War

At first glance, it may not seem that China is really engaged in an arms race with the US. After all, China’s official defense budget for this year – at roughly $175 billion – amounts to just one-quarter of the $700 billion budget approved by the US Congress. But China’s actual military spending is estimated to be much higher than the official budget: according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion.

In any case, the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.

If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither.

On the macro level, China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to

  • rapid population aging,
  • high debt levels,
  • maturity mismatches, and the
  • escalating trade war

that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs.

Moreover, while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment.

.. The problem for the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets.

Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become.

The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”

Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries. Despite early signs of trouble – which, together with the Soviet Union’s experience, should give the CPC pause – China seems to be determined to push ahead with the BRI, which the country’s leaders have established as a pillar of their new “grand strategy.”

An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return. According to AidData at the College of William and Mary, from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion.

Now, China has pledged to provide $62 billion in loans for the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” That program will help Pakistan confront its looming balance-of-payments crisis; but it will also drain the Chinese government’s coffers at a time when trade protectionism threatens their replenishment.

Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.