As we wrote last month, negotiations for a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are not going well. President Trump has criticized the agreement repeatedly and succeeded in antagonizing both Mexico and Canada through the U.S. negotiating team. In spite of overwhelming support among U.S. businesses, we have delayed negotiations long enough that any action by Congress will be impossible before next year. By then, a new Congress and a new Mexican president could make an agreement even more problematic
If that were not enough to concern firms and consumers that would be affected, the president has started what could be a major trade battle, if not an all-out war. His philosophy is simple. If we penalize goods manufactured abroad, manufacturers and consumers in this country will be much better off. In principle, that sounds good; but most informed economists say it just does not work that way. Other countries will not sit idly by while we penalize products they are selling us. Let’s look at what has happened so far. It started with Canada and Europe when we imposed a tariff on steel and aluminum coming into the U.S. Canada struck back with a 10 percent levy on about $12 billion of U.S. products, including such things as chocolate, ketchup, soup, salad dressing, and beef. The European countries retaliated against motorcycles, whiskey, boats, and peanut butter. Mexico chose more than a dozen agricultural products, including pork, a major export to Mexico.
The most concerning contest of course, is with China. Last week, the U.S. levied a 25 percent tariff on $34 billion of Chinese exports to this country. Airplane parts and farm implements were the hardest hit. China immediately imposed tariffs on soybeans and automobiles. The soybean levies will be particularly hard on Midwest farmers who sell large amounts of soybeans to China. Currently, the U.S. is threatening to penalize another $200 billion of Chinese products.
Although we buy much more from China than they buy from us, there are a number of ways they could retaliate. With China our number one supplier of toys, think about Christmas with the price of toys up 20-25%. It also would be very easy for the Chines government to penalize U.S. companies operating in China, organize boycotts, cut off student and tourist travel, or initiate other economic sanctions.
President Trump’s fantasy is that U.S. manufacturers will move back home, production will pick up here, employment will increase, and the economy will grow. Typically, what happens however, is that prices simply rise across the board, consumers are worse off, and no one wins.
For those companies who manufacture offshore, closing foreign operations would be easier said than done. Some firms have made huge investments in other countries and are not likely to readily abandon them. For the supply chain manager, these international conflicts become just one more issue with which he or she must contend. Changing product origins has an impact throughout the pipeline, and adds a major complexity to the supply chains of those companies affected.