Trump’s Trade Wars Aren’t Going to Make America Great Again

donald trump
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan while fighting the American presidential elections, was to ‘Make America Great Again’. On March 1, 2018, a little over a year after taking over as the 45th president of the United States, Trump announced a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminium.

The question is, how does this fit into Trump’s plan to make America great again? Trump plans to drive up exports and drive down imports. By driving down imports through tariffs, the American consumer will be forced to buy stuff produced within the country. This will encourage domestic industry and in turn create jobs. By driving up exports, again domestic industry will be encouraged and this will create jobs. QED.

Now only if it was as simple as that. The trouble is that most politicians while making economic decisions look at only the first order effects of their decisions. In the current case this basically means that the steel tariff of 25%, will also allow the American domestic steel industry to compete.

As of now the American steel industry cannot compete simply because it cannot produce steel at a price at which steel can be imported into the United States. The tariff of 25% will make imported steel costlier and in the process allow American steel companies to compete. And this will create jobs. At least that is what Trump and his advisers who have helped him to arrive at this decision, hope for.

This is the first order effect of Trump’s decision which looks just at the impact of the tariff  on the American steel producers. As Henry Hazlitt writes in Economics in One Lesson: “Those who favour it [i.e. tariffs] think only of the interests of the producers immediately benefitted by the particular duties involved. They forget the interests of the consumers who are immediately injured by being forced to pay these duties.”

Hazlitt is talking about the first order effect of Trump’s decision which benefits American steel companies and the second order effect of Trump’s decision which hurts American companies consuming steel.

Steel (either imported or produced in America) is bought by other American companies. It is used as a major component while making buildings, tools, ships, automobiles, machines, appliances, and weapons. Other than weapons, the United States cannot do without the other things listed in the last sentence.

On second thought, given the American obsession with guns, neither can the country do without weapons.

Steel is also used as a major input into building physical infrastructure.

While the tariff on steel will make American steel producers viable, it will make steel more expensive for American steel consumers, as they will have to pay more for steel. This increase in cost will be passed on to the end consumers. So, everything from cars to appliances to homes will cost more. The end consumer only has so much money going around. Hence, he or she may not buy the stuff he has been planning to, due to higher prices. If he does so, his expenses will have to increase or he will have to balance his overall expenses, by cutting down on his other expenditure.

As Hazlitt writes: “The added amount which consumers pay for a tariff protected article leaves them just that much less with which to buy all other articles. There is no net gain to industry as a whole.” This is a very basic point which politicians encouraging any sort of protectionism don’t seem to get.

The tariffs will impact the overall sales of other American businesses, which might in turn fire people to maintain their profitability. It’s just that it is not possible to exactly quantify these job losses and loss of business.

As Hazlitt writes: “It would be impossible for even the cleverest statistician to know precisely what the incidence of the loss of other jobs had been—precisely how many men and women had been laid off from each particular industry, precisely how much business each particular industry had lost—because consumer had to pay more [for steel in this case].”

The news agency Reuters has a story on how 780 workers of the Novolipetsk Steel will lose their jobs. The company imports two million tonnes of steel slabs per year from its Russian parent company. It then rolls these slabs into sheets for various American companies, ranging from Home Depot to Harley Davidson to Caterpillar.

The customers of this steel company now need to be ready to accept a 25% increase in the price of steel. If they do, the company survives. If they don’t, then the company will have to start firing workers. This is the second order effect of a tariff, which is not very clear up front.

If these companies accept a 25% increase it will only be in a situation where they can’t source the steel they need from a cheaper source. Further, it will lead to a rise in the price of their end product, depending on what proportion steel forms of their total inputs.

Also, it is worth remembering here, that if America can impose tariffs on its imports, other countries can do the same on their imports, hurting American exports. In fact, this is precisely how things played out in the aftermath of the First World War, when America tried to protect its domestic industry through tariffs. In return, other countries imposed tariffs on their imports and this led to the start of the global trade war, hurting American exports.

Hence, driving down imports, while trying to drive up exports, is sort of contradictory. There are many other aspects to this, which we shall see in tomorrow’s column.

The Economist estimates that steel and aluminium accounted for around 2% of the total American imports of $2.4 trillion, last year. This formed around 0.2% of the American GDP. Given this, currently the level of protectionism unleashed by the American president is very small. But the level of rhetoric that Donald Trump has unleashed around the issue, it doesn’t seem that he is going to stop just at this. This also becomes clear from the fact that on March 6, 2018, Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser of Trump, quit.

We will return to this discussion in tomorrow’s column.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on March 12, 2018.

Why Inflation Cannot Be a Growth Strategy


In the recent past it has been suggested that some amount of inflation cannot be bad in order to get economic growth going again. Hence, the Reserve Bank of India(RBI), should cut the repo rate in order to get the economic growth going.

Repo rate is the rate at which RBI lends to banks. The hope is that when the RBI cuts the repo rate, banks will also cut their lending rates. At lower rates both individual consumers as well as firms will borrow and spend more. And this will get economic growth going again. (As I have said in the past individual consumers are already borrowing at a record pace even at the so called high interest rates).

How does this work? As RBI governor Raghuram Rajan had explained in a February 2014 speech: “By raising interest rates, the RBI causes banks to raise rates and thus lowers demand; firms do not borrow as much to invest when rates are higher and individuals stop buying durable goods against credit and, instead, turn to save. Lower demand growth leads to a better match between demand and supply, and thus lower inflation for the goods being produced, but also lower growth.”

When RBI cuts the repo rate this trend reverses. As Rajan explained: “Relatedly, if lower rates generate higher demand and higher inflation, people may produce more believing that they are getting more revenues, not realizing that high inflation reduces what they can buy out of the revenues. Following the saying, “You can fool all the people some of the time”, bursts of inflation can generate growth for some time. Thus in the short run, the argument goes, higher inflation leads to higher growth.”

The trouble is that this inflation eventually catches up with growth. As Rajan said: “As the public gets used to the higher level of inflation, the only way to fool the public again is to generate yet higher inflation. The result is an inflationary spiral which creates tremendous costs for the public.”

Hence, it is important that inflation stays in control, if a country is looking for strong growth over a long period of time. (As I had explained in a column last week).

Inflation as per the consumer price index has started to go up again. For June 2016, the inflation was at 5.77 per cent. In comparison, the inflation in June 2015 was at 5.40 per cent. One reason for this jump has been food inflation. Food inflation in June 2016 was at 7.79 per cent. Within food, vegetables, pulses and sugar, saw an increase in price of 12.72 per cent, 28.28 per cent and 12.98 per cent, respectively. Spices went up by 8.13 per cent. Food items constitute 54.18 per cent of the consumer price index. Food inflation impacts poor the most given that a bulk of their income goes towards paying for food.

As is obvious, the jump in inflation as per consumer price index has been due to a rise in food inflation. The RBI cannot do anything about food prices through the repo rate, and hence, the RBI should cut the repo rate, or so goes the argument.

In the 2014 speech Rajan had explained this by saying: “I want to present one more issue that has many commentators exercised – they say the real problem is food inflation, how do you expect to bring it down through the policy rate? The simple answer to such critics is that core CPI inflation, which excludes food and energy, has also been very high, reflecting the high inflation in services. Bringing that down is centrally within the RBI’s ambit.

So RBI cannot control food inflation but it can control the prices of other items that make up the consumer price index, through its monetary policy. In fact, the RBI can control, what economists call the “second round effects”.

Economist Vijay Joshi explains this in his new book India’s Long Road—The Search for Prosperity: “What sparks inflation is quite different from what keeps it on the boil. Though a supply shock raises the price of, say, food or oil products, this leads to a persistent rise in the overall price level only if it spreads and gathers strength due to the pressure of aggregate demand. If the economy is ‘overheated’, the inflation impulse becomes too generalized. A wage-price spiral can then develop that is hard to break, especially if people begin to expect higher inflation and increase their wage and salary claims in order to protect their real incomes.”

And this is where monetary policy and the central bank come in. As Joshi writes: “To prevent these ‘second-round effects’, monetary policy has to keep excess demand and inflationary expectations under check.”

Hence, while the RBI cannot control food prices, its monetary policy can have an impact on other elements that constitute the consumer price index. And this explains why the core-inflation (prices of products other than food and fuel) in June 2016 cooled to down 4.5 per cent. It was at 4.7 per cent in May 2016. This, despite the fact that food inflation is close to 8 per cent.

In fact, Rajan explained this beautifully in a June 2016 speech where he said: “The reality is that while it is hard for us to control food demand, especially of essential foods, and only the government can influence food supply through effective management, we can control demand for other, more discretionary, items in the consumption basket through tighter monetary policy. To prevent sustained food inflation from becoming generalized inflation through higher wage increases, we have to reduce inflation in other items. Indeed, overall headline inflation may have stayed below 6 percent recently even in periods of high food inflation, precisely because other components of the CPI basket such as “clothing and footwear” are inflating more slowly.

Given that this is not such a straightforward point to understand, many people fall for the inflation is good for growth and that RBI cannot control inflation, arguments.

The column originally appeared in Vivek Kaul’s Diary on July 19, 2016