Trade War or Negotiation Tactic?

Contributed by: Center Investment Department The Center

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In March, President Trump announced tariffs for the steel and aluminum industry (25% tariff on steel and 10% tariff on aluminum) outside of the approval from his advisors.  He stated these tariffs are to protect industries in the U.S. and protect national security. Trump’s campaign focused a lot on trade with China and Mexico. This announcement lead to the departure of Gary Cohn who held the top economic advisor position to the President.  Since then, potential exemptions or grace periods for some countries were created softening his initial threat.  These exemptions are designed primarily for Canada and Mexico with whom; by the way, we are in the middle of re-negotiating NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).  This exemption is contingent on a NAFTA deal.  This type of threat is exactly the type of shock and awe we have gotten used to from the President as a bargaining chip.  While the stock market initially had a strong negative reaction as this news came out, it has since recovered.  The market also took in stride the news of Gary Cohn departing and threats from other countries to retaliate with their own tariffs.

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Following is some insight from our team into what tariffs are and why we need to pay attention to a potential trade war and how it may affect portfolios.

What are tariffs?

Let’s start from the top – a tariff is a tax placed on imports from another country. The idea is to make goods from other countries more expensive to encourage consumers to purchase domestic goods.

Who wins and who loses?

Winners:

  • + Domestic industries whose competition has been limited
  • + Workers in those domestic industries
  • + The government which collects the revenue from the tariff

Losers:

  • - Foreign exporters whose goods are less attractive to the domestic country
  • - Domestic consumers who see prices rise
  • - Secondary industries who rely on the imported product (in the case of steel think automobiles, heavy duty equipment, etc.)

On what products/countries does the U.S. currently impose tariffs?

The U.S has tariffs in place on thousands of products including animals, food, other commodities, but most tariff revenue in the U.S. comes from apparel and cars (https://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/07/trump-tariffs-countries-and-products-that-pay-the-highest-us-tariffs.html). The countries that pay the most to the U.S. from tariffs are China, Vietnam, and Japan. Canada and Mexico import more than every other country besides China, but do not come close to duties paid compared to the other countries because of current agreements through NAFTA.

China is currently the world’s largest producer of steel, but according to the International Trade Administration (https://www.trade.gov/steel/countries/pdfs/imports-us.pdf), less than 2% of the U.S.’s steel came from China. Mexico and Canada are large exporters of steel to the U.S., but are currently exempt from the tariff, for now, while NAFTA negotiations are underway.

The impact on markets and portfolios

Steel and aluminum market capitalization is less than $50 Billion (or about 1/10 the market cap of Facebook Inc.), so direct implications on stock prices may not be the cause of much worry. The fear comes from the uncertainty of a global trade war. Countries can retaliate and place tariffs of their own on products imported from the U.S., which could disrupt any number of markets.

So what is going to happen? Whenever you restrict the flow of goods and services, you risk causing inflation and a deterioration in global trade. Low and rising inflation is usually good for stock markets, and we are starting from a place of low inflation.  Initially, there could be some market jitters as inflation creeps back up.as we witnessed in early February but those should abate as investors realize that inflation is still quite low.  The deterioration in global trade is what could have a more significant impact on stock and bond markets.  The question of whether or not this is just a bargaining chip for President Trump remains to be seen.  If this is the case, it will likely not be pushed to the point where it starts to meaningfully affect global trade. The last time the U.S. took a similar step to impose tariffs on steel was back in 2002 and retaliatory actions from other countries caused President Bush to halt the practice after only 19 months.  In an economy that has a strong fundamental footing, as the U.S. does now, higher inflation and even interest rates should not be too punitive for stocks.  We recommend maintaining a well diversified portfolio in this environment.  If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out!


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