If the polling is any guide, President Trump’s last strong suit heading into the fall midterm election is the robust performance of the U.S. economy. Quinnipiac University’s latest numbers show that voters disapprove of the way Trump is handling foreign policy, 58 percent to 38 percent, and by 51 percent to 35 percent say that he has weakened the nation’s position as leader of the free world. On the other hand, Trump is barely above water in terms of his handling of the economy, 49 percent to 47 percent.
The economy’s performance is vital to Trump’s political survival. As Vox’s Ezra Klein noted a few weeks ago, Trump is way underperforming how he should be doing with a 3.8 percent unemployment rate and a booming stock market. If the U.S. economy were to tip toward a recession or crisis, the only legitimate pillar for Trump’s support would evaporate.
Trump’s defenders would rightly point out that, hey, the economy is doing pretty gosh-darn well. And they would be completely right! Unemployment is at historic lows, and the stock market is at historic highs. This Friday, forecasters expect the second-quarter GDP growth to look pretty good. On the Friday after that, the July jobs report will come out, and there is no reason to think job growth will slacken off. To his supporters, Trump has earned raves for his economy.
A low unemployment rate, accelerating growth and robust stock markets are all objectively good news for Trump, his political base and the rest of the country. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts feels compelled, however, to point out some discordant notes in this upbeat economic narrative.
The first is just how much Trump has to do with any of these positive numbers. Economists at the Center for Economic and Policy Research compared the actual performance of the U.S. economy under Trump to a “doppelganger” created by a “combination of other economies [that] matches the evolution of real GDP in the US before the 2016 election with the highest possible accuracy.” Their conclusions can be seen in the chart and text below:
The impact of President Trump on the macroeconomic performance of the US economy has been negligible so far. We measure neither an acceleration of growth nor increased job creation in the US economy relative to an appropriate benchmark. …
At this point we are confident in concluding that President Trump largely inherited the ‘greatest economy ever’. That said, we also note that there is no evidence to date that President Trump caused a deterioration of macroeconomic performance in the US — he is a stable genius indeed.
This should not be that shocking a finding. Trump’s major economic decisions in 2017 consisted of replacing Janet L. Yellen with Jerome H. Powell as Fed chair, a burst of deregulation and the tax cut. The last two should have accelerated growth a little but, but not that much.
Trump’s policies are having more subtle effects on the U.S. economy, however, and these do not look so healthy. First, the most powerful effect of the tax cut is to blow a hole through U.S. public finances. Earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget conceded that the Congressional Budget Office was right and that the federal budget deficit will soar past $1 trillion in 2019. Needless to say, in a booming economy, the budget deficit should not — repeat, not — be widening.
Well, at least the sugar high is fun, right? Except that, again, a peek under the hood reveals some serious problems with the distribution of economic growth. Bloomberg News’s Noah Smith looked at its effect on real wages, and, well, hoo boy:
The tax reform hasn’t yet resulted in appreciably higher wages for American workers. Real average hourly compensation actually fell in the first quarter after the tax reform was passed.
Official data for the second quarter isn’t available yet, but private data isn’t looking encouraging. PayScale’s index of real wages shows a dramatic deterioration in the period.
So the tax cut isn’t yielding much in the way of wage gains and is worsening the U.S. fiscal outlook. Big whoop, the economy is still booming! Nothing can stop the economy now!
Except, perhaps, Trump’s disastrous foreign economic policies. This is the area where Trump’s policies diverge the most from past presidents, and it is also the area where the effects are pretty severe. It is easy to point to companies and sectors that have been negatively affected, but the data that is trickling in suggests emergent macro effects. Peterson Institute for International Economics head Adam Posen looked at the net international investment picture in the United States, and boy, is it ugly:
In the first quarter of 2016, the total net inflow was $146.5 billion. For the same quarter in 2017, it was $89.7 billion. In 2018, it was down to $51.3 billion. This decline was not driven by changes in Chinese investment, which flows both ways and so contributes little to changes in the net figure. (In the first quarter of 2016, the United States saw a small net inflow of $4.5 billion from China, and in the same period in 2018, it saw a small net outflow to China of $300 million.)
The falloff is a result of a general decline in the United States’ attractiveness as a place to make long-term business commitments. The overall trend in FDI shows the same picture. A four-quarter moving average of net FDI inflows to the United States shows that this year, it has fallen back to its post-crisis lows of 2012.
The situation is even worse than this … shows. The massive fiscal stimulus passed by Congress should have boosted investment incentives by cutting the corporate tax rate and making the tax code more favorable to production, thereby increasing US growth prospects. Chinese and other companies worried about future access to the US market should be deciding to get as many deals done as possible before Congress shortly passes the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act, which will toughen inward investment rules — as well as to get behind looming tariff walls. Yet despite all these positive pressures, net inward FDI fell.
Meanwhile, the trade wars show no sign of letting up. Trump has made it clear that he thinks trade wars are good and easy to win and that he’s playing with the bank’s money in risking further trade wars. Furthermore, this week he tweeted:
Trump’s tariffs are so great that the administration is dusting off a Great Depression-era program to help U.S. farmers who have been hurt by the retaliatory tariffs:
The Trump administration on Tuesday announced up to $12 billion in emergency aid to farmers caught in an escalating trade war, seeking to temper growing Republican dissent over President Trump’s trade policies. …
Trump defended his approach Tuesday during a speech in Missouri, pleading with the public to “be a little patient” and arguing that farmers would eventually be “the biggest beneficiary” of his policies.
But many Republicans criticized the administration’s aid package, saying the president should back off his trade war and help farmers regain more access to foreign markets, rather than offering them government payments.
Philip Levy of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs says Trump’s behavior over the past few months reveals that we need to take the president literally and seriously on trade policy:
For most of the time that the President’s supporters have been asking for patience on negotiations, there have not actually been negotiations taking place. NAFTA negotiations have been on a hiatus and there is no indication the administration has budged from its untenable positions. Nor is there any evidence of new talks with China. Nor of negotiations over removal of steel and aluminum protection.
Instead, the President has escalated the conflicts. He pledged retaliation against China for its retaliation and, rather than pulling back on steel and aluminum tariffs, he has suggested taking the same approach to the much bigger trade in autos.
The instrumentalist illusion that President Trump is on the verge of striking great new trade deals is critical to maintaining public support for his policies, keeping markets calm, and forestalling pushes in Congress to undo the damage. It is a popular belief, despite the absence of negotiations, despite seemingly irreconcilable stances on key trade issues, and despite the President’s repeated statements that he prefers protectionism. On trade, many people are neither taking him literally nor seriously.
If all Trump wants to do is enact tariffs, then the price to the economy will be high. The IMF estimates a serious dent in global economic growth as a result of the emergent trade wars. Even conservative groups acknowledge that the domestic effect of escalating tariffs erases any positive growth or employment effects from the tax cut.
Meanwhile, as the Trump administration continues to determine its actual trade agenda, other great powers such as China and the European Union are negotiating trade deals that bypass the United States and writing new rules that leave it out in the cold.
If Trump supporters look at the current snapshot of the U.S. economy, they have good reason to feel satisfied with their president. All of the underlying data, however, suggests that this picture is not going to age well at all. That will do bad things to Trump’s approval rating and worse things to U.S. consumers.