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President Donald Trump has long been keen to defend workers from the “carnage” of “bad trade deals.” To that end, President Tramp signed on 8 March 2018 an order that imposes tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from all foreign countries, while carving out an exception for Canada and Mexico for now while North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations are under way. President Tramp, joined by steel and aluminum workers, signed a companion proclamation, one on steel and one on aluminum, institution a tariff of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum imports.
President Trump a lso threatened the European Union (EU) with trade barriers on automobiles and could take even more measures on intellectual property rights and technology goods. It is more plausible than not that this is the beginning of a costly tit-for-tat whereby United States trade protection will be countered by others. The EU for example warned the United States not to take such measures.
To this effect, EU Trade Ministers agreed at a meeting on 27 February 2018 that they would respond with counter-measures if the United States brings in import tariffs on steel and aluminum. Matthias Machning, German Deputy Economy Minister stated that the introduction of tariffs on steel and aluminum by the United States is incompatible with the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and unjustifiable on national security grounds.
The bad news is that a fully-fledged trade war would create serious economic damage. Recent estimations by Ralph Ossa from the University of Chicago indicate that a global trade war, resulting in a rise in trade barriers for all countries, would slash real incomes by an average 3.4%. At the global level, this would correspond to a loss of almost one full year of growth efforts. Ralph Ossa argued that, President Trump’s such move is surprising in that it will negatively impact the United States economy, although the extent of harm would be limited to the loss of jobs in the user industries of the protected sector.
According to Ralph Ossa, this can be illustrated with the case of the United States steel safeguard tariffs between March 2002 and December 2003. Back in 2002, mounting competitive pressures on the steel industry led President George W. Bush to impose safeguard tariffs ranging between 8% and 30% on ten steel product groups, with a total of 272 tariff lines. Steel imports from NAFTA countries, from other preferential trade agreement parties (Jordan and Israel) and from 100 developing countries were exempted. Moreover, around 1,000 firm-specific exemptions were granted by the United States Trade Representative at the time.
Dr. Agnieszka Gehringer, a Senior Research Analyst at the Flossbach von Storch Research Institute stated that, as a result of trade restrictions, United States imports of steel products declined by 5% between 2002 and 2003, bringing the steel industry’s trade deficit down by 28%. However, immediately after the protection ended, import growth rebounded and contributed to a rapid widening of the industry’s trade deficit, above the levels from pre-protectionist era.
The protection of the steel industry produced negative spillover effects to other parts of the United States economy. Steel is a key input in several industries, among others manufacture of basic metals, manufacture of fabricated metal products, manufacture of electrical equipment and manufacture of machinery and equipment not elsewhere classified. Taken together, the steel-using industries generated in 2001 far more value added than did the steel industry itself and employed 57 workers for every employee in the steel industry.
According to Dr. Agnieszka Gehringer, nine WTO members (Brazil, China, Chinese Taipei, the EU, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland) opposed the safeguard measures in the WTO. It was found that the safeguards violated WTO rules by failing to show a “causal link” between increased imports and “serious injury” on the United States side. Also, the United States government did not provide comprehensive and appropriate evidence of “unforeseen developments” of steel imports explaining their increase.
Due to the continuation of non-compliance of the United States with the WTO ruling, the EU was authorized to raise retaliatory tariffs on United States goods. It targeted, among others, citrus fruits and textiles, with the aim to build up internal opposition to the United States protectionism among various United States industries. Safeguard measures on steel were eventually terminated by the United States in December 2003.
Dr. Agnieszka Gehringer further noted that there should be no doubt that unfair trading practices undermine the harmonious functioning of the global trading order. But the WTO’s dispute resolution has exactly the aim to assist discordant trading partners in a peaceful resolution of trade tensions. As a matter of fact, the United States enjoys an above-average success rate in disputes that have been decided at the WTO since its foundation in 1995. At the same time, some WTO rules might be indeed outdated and could be renegotiated to better reflect the changing nature of trade today.
Finally, as Ralph Ossa said, the lack of an investment treaty between the United States and China adds considerable fuel to the flames. After all, if such an investment treaty existed, it would assure fair access to reciprocal markets for multinationals. It is obvious that President Donald Trump’s protectionist measures and pledges will cause a tit-for-tat trade conflict or at least elements thereof. Smaller muscle flexing with respect to single industries would probably not harm the overall economic picture. However, a fully-fledged trade war would be detrimental to both the United States and its trading partners.
Steve Halle of Birmingham University stated that the current Trump administration’s strategy reflects a false diagnosis of the underlying problem of chronic current account deficits registered by the United States. As long as United States excess consumption is financed by savings from abroad, there is no economic reason for current account deficits to improve. Protectionism only reallocates the deficits among sectors.
Equally significant, Steve Halle noted, under the twin deficit scenario, these trade deficit could get even worse, should the recent major tax cuts significantly worsen the outlook for the United States fiscal balance. With regard to protectionism and trade wars, President Donald Trump should heed the warning of his illustrious predecessor Thomas Jefferson that “the most successful war seldom pays for its losses.”