You are hearing claims, hints, implications, or outright statements that the full burden of the trade war is falling on American consumers. (Maybe some of the commentators are too wrapped up in the “Trump’s action have no merits whatsoever” game?) I strongly believe that is wrong, as outlined in my latest Bloomberg column. Here is one bit:
…there are well-done studies showing that the recent tariffs have translated into higher prices for U.S. consumers. I am not contesting that research. The question is whether those studies give sufficient weight to all relevant variables for the longer run.
To see why the full picture is more complicated, let’s say the U.S. slaps tariffs on the industrial inputs (whether materials or labor) it is buying from China. It is easy to see the immediate chain of higher costs for the U.S. businesses translating into higher prices for U.S. consumers, and that is what the afore-mentioned studies are picking up. But keep in mind China won’t be supplying those inputs forever, especially if the tariffs remain. Within a few years, a country such as Vietnam will provide the same products, perhaps at cheaper prices, because Vietnam has lower wages. So the costs to U.S. consumers are temporary, but the lost business in China will be permanent. Furthermore, the medium-term adjustment will have the effect of making China’s main competitors better exporters.
China has an industrial policy whose goal is to be competitive in these [branded goods] and other areas. Tariffs will limit profits for these companies and prevent Chinese products from achieving full economies of scale. So this preemptive tariff strike will hurt the Chinese economy in the future, even if it doesn’t yet show up in the numbers.
In my numerous visits to China, I’ve found that the Chinese think of themselves as much more vulnerable than Americans to a trade war. I think they are basically correct, mostly because China is a much poorer country with more fragile political institutions.
I should note that I am not trying to defend Trump in this column, rather we need to get the economics right if we are to understand what is going on and why America can exert any pressure at all. On Twitter, Christopher Balding is one who is getting these matters right.
Returning to the bigger picture, to the extent you wish to criticize Trump’s policies, focus on what China may do as a result of its vulnerability, not America’s supposed lack of bargaining power in the struggle.