Trump Tariff Policy and the Risk of Recession

Early this month, Trump announced that a 10% tariff would go into effect on September 1st on all remaining imports from China.  (Half of Chinese imports were already subject to a 25% tariff.)  Stock markets plunged amid warnings of a global slowdown, inflation and the possibility of recession in the U.S.  Investors rushed to buy safe-haven bonds, sending the yield on 10-year bonds below that of 2-year bonds, producing the dreaded “yield curve inversion,” which has often been a harbinger of a looming recession.  So the warnings of recession intensified.  Every weaker-than-expected economic report blames the “trade war” and Trump’s tariffs, while every stronger-than-expected economic report – most notably a strong labor market and good GDP growth (the exact opposite of recession) is shrugged off as happening in spite of the tariffs and trade war.  The globalist media is desperately stoking fear of a recession in the hope of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is there actually a risk of recession related to Trump’s tariff policy?  You bet there is.  But the relationship is exactly the opposite of what economists and the media would have you believe.  Trump’s “slow turkey” approach to the use of tariffs – imposing them only on China – so far hasn’t yielded anything in terms of reducing the trade deficit and bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.  Don’t get me wrong.  The tariffs on China are definitely working – reducing the trade imbalance with China by nearly 25% this year.  But companies aren’t convinced that this is anything other than a blip in U.S. trade policy or that it could extend beyond China.  So, instead of bringing jobs back to the U.S., it has shifted them to other overpopulated nations hungry for work.  It appears that countries like Mexico and Vietnam have been the big beneficiaries so far, where our trade deficit with each has grown by approximately 25%.

Our overall trade deficit hasn’t budged.  In  June (the most recent month for which data is available), our deficit in manufactured goods was $73.1 billion – the 2nd worst figure ever recorded and only $3.6 billion below the record set in December of ’18.

Trump appears to be walking a fine line, taking the “slow turkey” approach to tariffs to avoid roiling markets but, at the same time, not realizing any of the benefit of bringing back manufacturing jobs, leaving the economy dependent on deficit spending to counteract the drag of the trade deficit, making it susceptible to a recession.  It’s a huge gamble.  A recession will doom any hope of a 2nd term and, with it, any hope of sustaining this badly-needed turn in trade policy.

 

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