Home > Causes of Inflation, China, Protectionism and Tariffs, Trade > Tariffs Don’t Hurt Domestic Growth

Tariffs Don’t Hurt Domestic Growth


I really wish that economics was an educational requirement in high school. It doesn’t have to be advanced economics – just a class covering the basics of micro- and macroeconomics so that everyone has at least a basic understanding of how an economy works.

If we had that, perhaps the pernicious confusion about the impact of tariffs wouldn’t be so widespread. It has really gotten ridiculous: on virtually any news program today, as well as quite a few opinion programs (and sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference), one can hear about how “the trade war is hurting the economy and could cause a recession.” But that’s ridiculous, and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what tariffs and trade barriers do, and what they don’t do.

Because to the extent that people remember anything they were taught about tariffs (and here perhaps we run into the main problem – not that we weren’t taught economics, but that people didn’t think it was important enough to remember the fine points), they remember “tariffs = bad.” Therefore, when tariffs are implemented or raised, and something bad happens, the unsophisticated observer concludes “that must be because of the tariffs, because tariffs are bad.” In the category of “unsophisticated observer” here I unfortunately have to include almost all journalists, most politicians, and most alarmingly a fair number of economists and members of the Fed. Although, to be fair, I don’t think the latter two groups are making the same error as the former groups; they’re probably just confusing the short-term and the long-term or thinking globally rather than locally.

In any event, this reached a high enough level of annoyance for me that I felt the need to write this short column about the effects of tariffs. I actually wrote some of this back in June but needed to let it out again.

The effect of free trade, per Ricardo, is to enlarge the global economic pie. (Ricardo didn’t speak in terms of pie, but if he did then maybe people would understand this better.) However, in choosing free trade to enlarge the pie, each participating country surrenders its ability to claim a larger slice of the pie, or a slice with particular toppings (in this analogy, choosing a particular slice means selecting the particular industries that you want your country to specialize in). Clearly, this is good in the long run – the size of your slice, and what you produce, is determined by your relative advantage in producing it and so the entire system produces the maximum possible output and the system collectively is better off.

However, that does not mean that this is an outcome that each participant will like. Indeed, even in the comparative free trade of the late 1990s and 2000s, companies carefully protected their champion companies and industries. Even though the US went through a period of truly sucking at automobile manufacturing, we still have the big three automakers. On the other hand, the US no longer produces any apparel to speak of. In fact, I would suggest that the only way that free trade works at all in a non-theoretical world is if (a) all of the participants are roughly equal in total capability or (b) the dominant participant is willing to concede its dominant position in order to enrich the whole system, rather than using that dominant position to secure its preferred slices for itself. Many would argue that (b) is what happened, as the US was willing to let its manufacturing be ‘hollowed out’ in order to make the world a happier place on average. Enter President Trump, who suggested that as US President, it was sort of his job to look out for US interests. And so we have tariffs and a trade war.

What is the effect of tariffs?

  1. Tariffs are good for the domestic growth of the country imposing them. There is no question about it in a static equilibrium world: if you raise the price of the overseas competitor, then your domestic product will be relatively more attractive and you will be asked to make more of it. If other countries respond, then the question of whether it is good or bad for growth depends on whether you are a net importer or exporter, and on the relative size of the Ex-Im sector of your economy. The US is a net importer, which means that even if other countries respond equally it is still a gain…but in any event, the US economy is relatively closed so retaliatory tariffs have a comparatively small effect. The effect is clearly uneven, as some industries benefit and some lose, but tariffs are a net gain to growth for the US in the short term (at least).
  2. Tariffs therefore are good for US employment. In terms of both growth and employment, recent weakness has been blamed on tariffs and the trade war. But this is nonsense. The US economy and the global economy have cycles whether or not there is a trade war, and we were long overdue for a slowdown. The fact that growth is slowing at roughly the same time tariffs have been imposed is a correlation without causality. The tariffs are supporting growth in the US, which is why Germany is in a recession and the US is not (yet). Anyone who is involved with a manufacturing enterprise is aware of this. (I work with one manufacturer which has suddenly started winning back business that had previously been lost to China in a big way).
  3. Tariffs are bad for global growth. The US-led trade war produces a shrinkage of the global pie (well, at least a slowing of its growth) even as the US slice gets relatively larger. But for countries with big export-import sectors, and for our trade partners who are net exporters to the US and have tariffs applied to their goods, this is an unalloyed negative. And as I said, more-fractious trade relationships reduce the Ricardian comparative advantage gain for the system as a whole. It’s just really important to remember that the gains accrue to the system as a whole. The question of whether a country imposing tariffs has a gain or a loss on net comes down to whether the growth of the relative slice outweighs the shrinkage of the overall pie. In the US case, it most certainly does.
  4. Trade wars are bad for inflation, everywhere. I’ve written about this at length since Trump was elected (see here for one example), and I’d speculated on the effect of slowing trade liberalization even before that. In short, the explosion of free trade agreements in the early 1990s is what allowed us to have strong growth and low inflation, even with a fairly profligate monetary policy, as a one-off that lasted for as long as trade continued to open up. That train was already slowing – partly because of the populism that helped elect Mr. Trump, and partly because the 100th free trade agreement is harder than the 10th free trade agreement – and it has gone into reverse. Going forward, the advent of the trade war era means we will have a worse tradeoff of growth and inflation for any given monetary policy. This was true anyway as the free-trade-agreement spigot slowed, but it is much more true with a hot trade war.
  5. Trade wars are bad for equity markets, including in the US. A smaller pie means smaller profits, and a worse growth/inflation tradeoff means lower growth assumptions need to be baked into equity prices going forward. Trade wars are of course especially bad for multinationals, whose exported products are the ones subject to retaliation.

In the long run, trade wars mean worse growth/inflation tradeoffs for everyone – but that doesn’t mean that every country is a net loser from tariffs. In the short run, the effect on the US of the imposition of tariffs on goods imported to the US is clearly positive. Moreover, because the pain of the trade war is asymmetric – a country that relies on exports, such as China, is hurt much more when the US imposes tariffs than the US is hurt when China does – it is not at all crazy to think that trade wars in fact are winnable in the sense of one country enlarging its slice at the expense of another country or countries’ slices. To the extent that the trade war is “won,” and the tariffs are not permanent, then they are even beneficial (to the US) in the long run! If the trade war becomes a permanent feature, it is less clear since slower global growth probably constrains the growth of the US economy too. Permanent trade frictions would also produce a higher inflation equilibrium globally.

In this context, you can see that the challenge for monetary policy is quite large. If the US economy were not weakening anyway, for reasons exogenous to trade, then the response to a trade war should be to tighten policy since tariffs lead to higher prices and stronger domestic growth. However, the US economy is weakening, and so looser policy may be called for. My worry is that the when the Federal Reserve refers to the uncertainty around trade as a reason for easing, they either misapprehend the problem or they are acting as a global central bank trying to soften the global impact of a trade war. I think a decent case can be made for looser monetary policy – but it doesn’t involve trade. (As an aside: if central bankers really think that “anchored inflation expectations” are the reason we haven’t had higher inflation, then why are they being so alarmist about the inflationary effects of tariffs? Shouldn’t they be downplaying that effect, since as long as expectations remain anchored there’s no real threat? I wonder if even they believe the malarkey about anchoring inflation expectations.)

Do I like tariffs? Well, I don’t hate them. I don’t think the real economy is the clean, frictionless world of the economic theorists; since it is not, we need to consider how real people, real industries, real companies, and real regimes behave – and play the game with an understanding that it may be partially and occasionally adversarial, rather than treating it like one big cooperative game. There are valid reasons for tariffs (I actually first enumerated one of these in 1992). I won’t make any claims about the particular skill of the Trump Administration at playing this game, but I will say that I hope they’re good at it. Because if they are, it is an unalloyed positive for my home country…whatever the pundits on TV think about the big bad tariffs.

  1. JAMES ASHTON
    August 28, 2019 at 9:56 am

    Well written. Amen.

  2. Mike Myers
    August 28, 2019 at 10:26 am

    A breath of fresh air. Thank you.

    I’m forwarding this to my daughter, a high school econ teacher in the Mesa, AZ school district.

    • August 28, 2019 at 1:00 pm

      Awesome! She’s doing a saint’s work – hope this is interesting!!

  3. Johnny Smith
    August 30, 2019 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for making some things a bit clearer.

    As you explain prices will have a tendency to increase with new/higher tariffs. What about the effects of those higher prices? You talked about inflation relatively ‘abstract’ in your number 4. Don’t higher prices mean also less consumption power meaning some drag on growth? Offsetting some effects mentioned in your number 1?

    • September 1, 2019 at 3:17 pm

      You have to be careful to distinguish between real spending and nominal spending. Nominal spending won’t be affected by higher prices – people just get less stuff for spending the same amount of money. So REAL spending might decline (in a static world), but what that means when there is positive growth is that the division of the nominal GDP between real growth and inflation is just worse – which is the main effect of trade wars in the long run, bad tradeoffs in this sense. However, in the short run the effect on US consumers is very small – we are talking tenths of a percent more increase in prices on average across the consumption basket – because we have a mostly closed economy. Good question!

      • Johnny Smith
        September 2, 2019 at 2:26 am

        Thanks Mike! I appreciate your always conclusive explanations. Great blog!

  4. August 31, 2019 at 5:09 am

    But, but, but… Great read, thanks Mike. Perhaps one could argue that the FX market, the one with the lowest collective IQ, is the one getting it right as the dollar continues to outperform.

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