Trump trade policy will turn the US into Brazil


Shielding raw materials exporters while ignoring the decline of America’s high-tech capacity, defensive trade action stands no chance of rejuvenating the US industrial base


David P. Goldman

Mar. 2, 2018

Aerial view of steel mills in Indiana Harbor on Michigan lake near Gary, USA. Photo via AFP/Ricciarini


The broad US stock market gave up an early rally and fell over 5% after President Trump’s announcement of punitive tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum, the highest in US history. US Steel, the country’s largest producer of the metal, rose 6.4% on the news and aluminum producer Nucor gained 2.4%, while the S&P 500 average lost 1%. General Motors fell almost 4%, Ford fell 3%, United Technologies fell 2.8% and Boeing fell 3.4%.

Raw materials prices have little to do with the erosion of America’s industrial base. Chronic underinvestment in capital-intensive manufacturing is the underlying problem, and American manufacturers avoid big capital commitments because they can’t compete with Asian subsidies for industrial plant and equipment. Asian economies view a $10 billion semiconductor fabrication plant the way Americans view a bridge, stadium or airport, as a public good that merits taxpayer support. China’s economy is so big that its subsidies distort capital investment around the world.

By protecting raw materials exporters while ignoring the decline of American high-tech capacity, the Trump trade policy nudges the US economy towards the economic profile of a Brazil: a producer and exporter of agricultural goods and raw or semi-finished materials with an atrophied industrial base.

Trump announced the tariffs in offhand remarks to reporters at the White House, after a day of conflicting signals. The White House had planned an announcement as of Wednesday night, but postponed it until this morning. Trump tweeted early Thursday, “Our Steel and Aluminum industries (and many others) have been decimated by decades of unfair trade and bad policies from around the world. We must not let our country, companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer. We want free, fair and SMART TRADE!”

As the equity market plunge suggests, Trump’s announcement is anything but smart. America’s greatest commercial challenge comes from China, which dominates many categories of high-tech manufacturing and has committed tens of billions of dollars to a campaign for supremacy in semiconductors. But China’s steel and aluminum exports to the US amount to less than 1% of the total; America’s main suppliers are Canada, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Turkey and Japan, in order of importance. China has been accused of depressing world prices of industrial metals, although aluminum prices have risen by 60% and steel prices have doubled since the Nov. 2015 low. US Steel’s stock price has jumped from $7 a share in early 2016 to $43 before Trump’s announcement.

US Steel’s 29,000 employees won’t determine the outcome of any major election, but the White House evidently believes that it needs to show the flag on trade to maintain credibility with its working-class supporters. If Trump’s trade announcement was a cynical political gesture with domestic politics in mind, the damage will be limited. But earlier this week, the president promoted trade warrior Peter Navarro to a rank equal to that of Economic Policy Council head Gary Cohn, which suggests that other shoes are likely to drop.

In two recent essays for the Journal of American Affairs, I examined the decline of innovation and productivity in the US, and the impact of this decline on US trade. Starting in the 2000’s, US venture capitalists stopped investing in manufacturing.


Source: Asia Times