This is how trade wars escalate: Trump hasn’t even officially announced the steel and aluminum import tariffs, expected to be formally unveiled this coming week, and the rhetoric is already one of World Trade War I doom and gloom.
Hours after Trump tweeted on Friday morning that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the bloc is prepared to respond quickly and forcefully by targeting imports of Harley-Davidson motorbikes, Levi Strauss & Co. jeans and bourbon whiskey from the U.S.
According to some, the preliminary EU retaliation was targeted in a way that would maximize political pressure on American leaders: Harley-Davidson is based in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, while bourbon whiskey hails from the state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. San Francisco-based Levi Strauss is headquartered in House Minority Leader’s Nancy Pelosi’s district.
As Bloomberg noted, Juncker’s threat heightened the prospects of a global free-for-all, as the World Trade Organization said the potential of escalating tensions “is real” and the International Monetary Fund warned the restrictions would likely damage the U.S. and global economy. It also prompted speculation that in light of the widespread condemnation by US trading partners and allies, that Trump might step back and reconsider the sanctions. This in turn led to a late-day burst in the stock market.
That however appears unlikely: first, in a tweet Friday morning, Trump doubled-down and warned of more trade actions ahead, casting them as reciprocal taxes, a term he has used for imposing levies on imports from countries that charge higher duties on U.S. goods than the U.S. currently charges.
“We will soon be starting RECIPROCAL TAXES so that we will charge the same thing as they charge us. $800 Billion Trade Deficit-have no choice!” Trump said in the tweet.
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On Saturday, Trump’s resolve appears only to be hardened. For one, Trump’s newly reincarnated foreign trade advisor said that the tariffs will likely be signed early next week. On Friday, Navarro also made clear that there wouldn’t be any exemptions, for either Canada or other US allies:
“I don’t believe any country in the world is going to retaliate for the simple reason we are the most lucrative and biggest market in the world,” Navarro told Fox News Friday. “They know they’re cheating us. All we’re doing is standing up for ourselves.”
One look at the record US trade deficit, with both the entire world, and with just Europe, and one could make the case that he is correct.
And then, just to underscore that the market’s late Friday assumption that Trump may change his mind on trade wars may have been woefully premature, on Saturday trump unleashed a pair of tweets making it clear that he not only has no intention of backing down, but is already planning counter-retaliation to Europe’s retaliation.
In the first of two tweets, trump blasted that “the United States has an $800 Billion Dollar Yearly Trade Deficit because of our “very stupid” trade deals and policies. Our jobs and wealth are being given to other countries that have taken advantage of us for years. They laugh at what fools our leaders have been. No more!”
The United States has an $800 Billion Dollar Yearly Trade Deficit because of our “very stupid” trade deals and policies. Our jobs and wealth are being given to other countries that have taken advantage of us for years. They laugh at what fools our leaders have been. No more!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 3, 2018
More importantly, Trump followed that tweet with an explicit threat aimed at Europe, saying that “If the E.U. wants to further increase their already massive tariffs and barriers on U.S. companies doing business there, we will simply apply a Tax on their Cars which freely pour into the U.S. They make it impossible for our cars (and more) to sell there. Big trade imbalance!”
If the E.U. wants to further increase their already massive tariffs and barriers on U.S. companies doing business there, we will simply apply a Tax on their Cars which freely pour into the U.S. They make it impossible for our cars (and more) to sell there. Big trade imbalance!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 3, 2018
And yes, the trade imbalance is indeed big: in fact it has never been bigger.
Of course, that’s just how the EU likes it, and once Trump counter-retaliates to Europe’s retaliation, it will be Europe’s turn next to retaliate once again, eventually resulting in the tit-for-tat “prisoner’s dilemma” constant defection game taught in every Poli Sci 101 class, which also happens to be the worst possible outcome.
So what happens if over the next week a trade war officially breaks out? The answer will depend on how US trading partners such as China, Canada and the EU retaliate, but one thing is clear: as GMO’s Ben Inker wrote on Friday afternoon, for risk-assets this could be the start of a 40% (or more) crash in stocks:
Trade Wars are Bad, and Nobody Wins
Yesterday’s announcement by President Trump of imminent tariffs on steel and aluminum imports was taken poorly by global stock markets. Perhaps in an attempt to convince investors this was an incorrect response, early this morning he tweeted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” He is wrong, and beyond the simple fact of his wrongness, a trade war is probably more dangerous for investors at this time than at any other time in recent history given the implications it would have for inflation, monetary policy, and economic growth. The only positive from the tariffs is that it is a windfall profit increase for U.S. producers of steel and aluminum, which is at least positive for them. It is unlikely to cause any material increase in U.S. capacity to produce steel and aluminum and therefore unlikely to lead to many additional jobs even in those sectors. The negatives are much more significant. I believe these tariffs on their own will push inflation higher, and higher inflation is a threat to the valuations of more or less all financial assets today. But the greater threat is that this escalates into an actual trade war. A trade war would increase prices on a much broader array of goods and services, while simultaneously depressing aggregate global demand. This pushes us in the direction of not just inflation but stagflation, where both valuations and corporate cash flow would be under pressure. While there are scenarios that would be worse for financial markets—the proverbial asteroid on a collision path with Earth comes to mind—a trade war has the potential to be very bad for both the global economy and investor portfolios.
As I wrote about last December, a significant inflation problem might well be the worst thing that could happen to a balanced portfolio, leading to losses on the order of 40%. A global trade war would be exactly the kind of economic event that could foreseeably lead to losses of that magnitude.
Trade Wars are Bad
As a general rule, when you add “war” to your description of an event, it’s a pretty strong suggestion that it is unlikely to be either good or easy. Wars are sometimes well intentioned (the war on drugs), occasionally necessary (World War II), but seldom good and more or less never easy to win. Even if you do “win” easily, the longer term implications are often more problematic than you thought (the second Iraq War). There is still some time for this particular war to be averted. But while it is our general contention that equity markets tend to overreact to political and economic events, this is not one of those times.