U.S. energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan, Inc. (KM) started construction on the Gulf Coast Express Pipeline Project in May 2018. Estimated to cost $1.75 billion, the pipeline will span 514 miles in Texas and aims to increase the United States’ ability to export liquefied natural gas to Mexico. The administration’s steep tariffs on imported steel could throw a major wrench into the pipeline project.
New public opinion research shows that the majority of Americans worry the tariffs will do more harm than good for the economy.
The current administration’s use of Section 232 to impose trade-restrictive measures on imports of steel and aluminum has become the source of increasing domestic discontent among steel-using industries, farmers who are the target of retaliatory tariffs, and Members of Congress who are reconsidering having delegated powers over trade to the President. It has also put WTO dispute settlement to an unwelcome test.
Manufacturers of labor-intensive products like apparel have already been looking elsewhere in Asia as labor costs continue to rise in China. China has not substantially increased market access for foreign investors in many sectors, causing foreign investment to slow or flatline in recent years. With lingering doubts about the worsening investment climate in China, the trade war is hastening decision-making that had already been underway.
The meeting between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping in Argentina in late November may prove to be a turning point for not only for the US-China relationship, but for global trade. Both leaders enter these discussions knowing the far more important question is whether there can be a sustainable co-existence between a Western market-driven economy with democratic ideals and a centrally-managed Chinese economy led by the Communist Party of China.
Trade wars, like real wars, are costly. But people are willing to sacrifice — at least up to a point — when they believe a cause is worth fighting for. Doing nothing in response to China’s policies would have cost nothing in the short run. But if the concerns raised by China’s policies are legitimate, doing nothing to fix them now will cost more to fix over time — if they remain fixable at all.
Well-known razor makers like Boston-based Gillette already face strong headwinds from changing consumer habits: fewer men are shaving as regularly now that beards are more in fashion. Online subscription services like Dollar Shave Club or Harry’s are also putting pressure on prices and profit margins. Now, razor makers are dealing with the problem of tariffs on the specialized steel they import.
It’s important to first understand what a tariff actually is and does before we can determine whether Trump’s new trade barriers are good or bad.
The biggest chunk of tariffs in the Great Tariff War of 2018 is between the United States and China, beginning with two rounds of tit-for-tat tariffs worth around $50 billion against one another. The United States just raised on the ante by another $200 billion. China will not fold; they will go “all in” in this poker game, but we don’t know what that means yet as they hold their cards close.
There is plenty of collateral damage in a tariff war because the one-upmanship spills over beyond the sectors named in the original complaint (steel for example), sweeping in producers like farmers for maximum political effect. The other dirty little secret in tariff wars is that they provide cover for governments to protect the producers of products facing normal market competition. That’s what might just be motivating our closest trading partners to put American whiskey on their lists for tariff retaliation.