The President of the United States, Donald Trump, announced recently that he will be pushing ahead with plans to impose a 25% tariff on imports of steel and a 10% tariff on aluminium. This announcement has raised concerns among the USA’s largest trading partners – including the EU, Canada and Mexico, which, according to recent calculations, expect to lose more than $5 billion in steel exports and over $1 billion in aluminium exports.
A number of economists and policymakers are worried that such policies restrict trade and are likely to provoke retaliation by the affected trade partners. In recent statements, the EU has pledged to take counter-measures if the bloc is affected by these policies. In a recent press conference, the Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmstrom, stated that:
We have made it clear that a move that hurts the EU and puts thousands of European jobs in jeopardy will be met with a firm and proportionate response.
She added that, ‘I truly hope that this will not happen. A trade war has no winners.’
Why is everyone so worried about trade wars then? Trade wars, by definition, result in trade diversion which can hurt employment, wealth creation and overall economic performance in the affected countries. As affected states are almost certain to retaliate, these losses are likely to be felt by all parties that are involved in a trade war – including the one that instigated it. This results in a net welfare loss, the size of which depends on a number of factors, including the relative size of the countries that take part in the trade war, the importance of the affected industries to the local economy and others.
A number of studies have attempted to estimate the effect of trade restrictions and tariff wars on welfare: see for instance Anderson and Wincoop (2001), Syropoulos (2002), Fellbermayr et al. (2013). The results vary widely, depending on the case. However, there seems to be consensus that the more similar (in terms of size and industry composition) the adversaries are, the more mutually damaging a trade war is likely to be (and, therefore, less likely to happen).
As Miyagiwa et al (2016, p43) explain:
A country initiates contingent protection policy against a trading partner only if the latter has a considerably smaller domestic market than its own, while avoiding confrontation with a country having a substantially larger domestic market than its own.
As both Canada and the EU are very large advanced market economies, it remains to be seen how much risk (and potential damage to the local and global economy) US trade policymakers are willing to take.
Since running for election, Donald Trump has vowed to ‘put America first’. One of the economic policies he has advocated for achieving this objective is the imposition of tariffs on imports which, according to him, unfairly threaten American jobs. On March 8 2018, he signed orders to impose new tariffs on metal imports. These would be 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium.
His hope is that, by cutting back on imports of steel and aluminium, the tariffs could protect the domestic industries which are facing stiff competition from the EU, South Korea, Brazil, Japan and China. They are also facing competition from Canada and Mexico, but these would probably be exempt provided negotiations on the revision of NAFTA rules goes favourably for the USA.
Assuming there were no retaliation from other countries, jobs would be gained in the steel and aluminium industries. According to a report by The Trade Partnership (see link below), the tariffs would increase employment in these industries by around 33 000. However, the higher price of these metals would cause job losses in the industries using them. In fact, according to the report, more than five jobs would be lost for every one gained. The CNN Money article linked below gives example of the US industries that will be hit.
But the costs are likely to be much greater than this. Accorinding to the law of comparative advantage, trade is a positive-sum game, with a net gain to all parties engaged in trade. Unless trade restrictions are used to address a specific market distortion in the trade process itself, restricting trade will lead to a net loss in overall benefit to the parties involved.
Clearly there will be loss to steel and aluminium exporters outside the USA. There will also be a net loss to their countries unless these metals had a higher cost of production than in the USA, but were subsidised by governments so that they could be exported profitably.
But perhaps the biggest cost will arise from possible retaliation by other countries. A trade war would compound the net losses as the world moves further from trade based on comparative advantage.
Already, many countries are talking about retaliation. For example, the EU is considering a ‘reciprocal’ tariff of 25% on cranberries, bourbon and Harley-Davidsons, all produced in politically sensitive US states (see the first The Economist article below). ‘As Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, puts it, “We can also do stupid”.’ In fact, this is quite a politically astute move to put pressure on Mr Trump.
But cannot countries appeal to the WTO? Possibly, but this route might take some time. What is more, the USA has attempted to get around WTO rules by justifying the tariffs on ‘national security’ grounds – something allowed under Article XXI of WTO rules, provided it can be justified. This could possibly deter countries from retaliating, but it is probably unlikely. In the current climate, there seems to be a growing mood for flouting, or at least loosely interpreting, WTO rules.