Let’s get up to speed on recent developments in the Trump administration’s trade policy.
Background: Of course, Donald Trump ran on aggressively going after trading partners who were “ripping us off,” by which he means selling us more than we buy from them. To state what I hope is obvious, this is far too simplistic a way to view international trade: The trade deficit is not a scorecard. However, unlike most economists, I have long argued that there are times when it clearly is a drag on overall growth (now is not one of those times), and there are places across the land where trade imbalances have deeply and lastingly hurt a lot of families. So Trump struck a nerve, one that was handily exposed by years of dismissal by elites.
Current events: Campaigning is one thing; governing, quite another. To Trump and some of his advisers, attacking the problem the president identified in the campaign has meant tariffs, first on steel and aluminum, and second, on $50 billion worth of imports from China. Most economists, myself included, argued that the metals’ tariffs would do more harm than good, as many more U.S. workers use those metals as inputs than produce them. But on China, the consensus is that hardball is necessary because of their theft of intellectual property.
The problem is that tariffs just don’t have much of a track record for accomplishing much of anything, at least in recent decades. To be clear, Alexander Hamilton used them wisely, but it’s hard to find good evidence of their positive impact since.
Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative office just released a not-so-little list of 1,300 Chinese imports that would face the tariffs. Interestingly, they exclude many low-end consumer items. It looks to me as if the list is crafted to target their trade surplus with us without hurting Walmart shoppers too much.
What to make of all of this? Here’s the bit that’s been underreported: There’s a decent chance these Chinese tariffs will never be implemented. Over the next six weeks, there will be a comment period and public hearing. Then, and this is the crucial moment to watch, the administration has six months to decide whether to apply the tariffs.
In other words, we’re at the beginning of the negotiation phase. At this point, I’d put the odds that the tariffs come to fruition at about half, and maybe even lower. It’s of course impossible to predict which way this administration will zig or zag, but Trump’s attention span being what it is, don’t bet the farm either way.
But the markets are freaking out! True, but what else is new? Equity markets like certainty. They also like unfettered trade flows. But as I will always stress to anyone and everyone, do not confuse the stock market with the real economy. Just this morning, ADP (a private-sector payroll servicer) announced that 241,000 jobs were created last month. I down-weight this report relative to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report due out Friday, but it’s valid data that’s typically close to the official number.
In other words, Trump’s trade-induced chaos is wreaking serious havoc with the stock market, but that’s not yet bleeding into the real economy. Trump inherited a solid macroeconomy with strong cyclical momentum, and it’s a lot harder to screw that up than it is to freak out the markets. Still, I wouldn’t put it past him.
Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of “The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.”