I owe President Trump an apology. I made the mistake of taking him seriously.
See, earlier this month when the president pledged to implement steel and aluminum tariffs worldwide, I wrote:
These tariffs are gonna happen. I seriously doubt there will be any scaling back. And contrary to the airy dismissals of advocates such as Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, they’re a big friggin’ deal.
… this is not an issue on which Trump’s beliefs are protean. Trump is not and never has been a fan of free trade, particularly multilateral free trade agreements like the World Trade Organization. Trump may be poorly informed on trade but his beliefs on this issue are very deep ….
These tariffs are going to happen. I seriously doubt there will be any exemptions for allies and partners. It’s basically a tax on consumers and corporate welfare for aluminum and steel producers. And the whole thing is very, very stupid.
Just three weeks later, the picture looks very different. As it turned out, the Trump administration exempted a fair number of allies: Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the European Union and South Korea. With those countries representing more than half of America’s steel imports, suddenly the announced tariffs did not seem quite so punishing.
Of course, those exemptions were temporary, and the Trump administration hoped to negotiate significant trade concessions in return for permanent relief. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts had its doubts that this would work.
The first new trade deal was announced Monday, with South Korea. The New York Times reported that the renegotiated United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) “appeared to be an early vindication of the White House’s efforts to use the penalties as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations.”
Most other reports suggest, however, that this is a poor interpretation of the new deal. The Wall Street Journal’s Kwanwoo Jun looks under the hood and reports the details:
Under the concessions negotiated with Seoul, the U.S. will be allowed to retain a 25% tariff on pickup trucks for an additional 20 years. The truck tariffs had been set to expire in 2021, so the deal significantly expands the protection applied to U.S. trucks. And South Korea would double the import quota for American-made cars meeting U.S. safety rules — but not Korean ones — to an annual 50,000 units per carmaker, up from 25,000 units currently.
But U.S. carmakers don’t export enough to hit the quota of 25,000 that exist now, and the move to maintain truck tariffs could also have limited impact. Kia Motors Corp. and Hyundai Motor Co. both have developed pickup trucks — the Mohave and the Santa Cruz — but neither has entered the U.S. market. The Korean carmakers are mostly focused on producing sedans for North America.
“I don’t think the KORUS deal is particularly significant economically,” said Tami Overby, a longtime Washington-based advocate for U.S. businesses with interests in South Korea ….
South Korea also agreed to a limit on the amount of steel it can export each year to the U.S. — 2.68 million tons, or 70% of its annual average for the past three years.
So, to sum up: The revised trade deal makes changes that have zero effect on the current flow of goods and services between the two countries, except that it imposes a voluntary export restraint on South Korean steel exports to the United States. That, frankly, hurts American steel-consuming industries just as much as it hurts the Korean steel sector.
This is not a great outcome: Voluntary export restraints are a truly stupid trade measure, and the switch from free trade to managed trade is regrettable. That said, this deal does not distort the pattern of bilateral trade all that much, and it forestalls a bigger trade war. One reason the stock market soared Monday was that the fears of an escalating trade war seem less likely.
Over the past few weeks, I have not been the only trade analyst who has been gloomy about the coming trade wars. A week ago the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ Adam Posen warned: “[Trump’s] launching a trade war would prove, however, to be his economic Afghanistan — costly, open-ended, and fruitless.” The Financial Times’ Shawn Donnan made a similar argument:
While there is a broad consensus in Washington that the U.S. needs a more muscular response to a rising China, there is real concern that the Trump administration appears to lack a strategy for ending the war it is about to start ….
Mr Trump’s supporters argue that the president is trying to force exactly that by creating real consequences for China rather than engage in the endless talks and World Trade Organization litigation that embroiled previous administrations.
There is another possibility, too. Mr Trump’s military-style trade bombast replicates the “fire and fury” rhetoric he employed with North Korea. Together with toughened sanctions that, he believes, led to Pyongyang caving. Emboldened, Mr Trump is about to launch a trade war he believes he can win.
The Korea deal suggests that many trade analysts — myself included — were overly pessimistic. If this negotiation proves to be the norm, then the administration is more cynical on trade than I previously thought. The Trump team appears comfortable pocketing token concessions and claiming victory rather than implementing tariffs. Like the president, the administration’s trade negotiators are phony-tough. Which is fine by me, because real trade wars are expensive and produce no winners.
By now it is clear that this administration’s trade policy is at least a decade out of date. But it also appears to recognize that it does possess a strong bargaining position. Trade wars are easy to win if your definition of victory is modest changes to deals and more managed trade. And on trade, this administration is far more modest than they have teased.