On May 13, 2019, escalating trade tensions between the United States and China sparked a worldwide stock sell-off that wiped out more than $1 trillion in global equity values.1 The markets recovered over the next three days, but tensions between the economic giants continued to drive volatility with no resolution in sight.2 Investors sometimes overreact to short-term events, but the conflict with China has been simmering for decades, and an extended trade war could have long-term economic consequences.
China was the largest U.S. trading partner in 2018, with $737 billion in goods and services exchanged between the two nations, accounting for 13% of all U.S. trade. The fundamental issue is the imbalance in this relationship; the goods and services trade deficit of $379 billion represented more than 60% of the total U.S. trade deficit. The United States maintains a surplus in services (primarily travel spending by Chinese citizens and software), so the critical concern is the deficit in goods, which totaled $419 billion in 2018 — an increase of 11.6% over the previous year.3–4
For years, U.S. officials have accused China of using unfair trade practices to maintain this imbalance, even as China has grown into a global economic powerhouse. Among the most contentious issues are currency manipulation, excessive restrictions on U.S. companies, forced technology transfers, and theft of intellectual property.
In early 2018, the Trump administration began a shift away from open markets by imposing global tariffs on imported steel, aluminum, solar panels, and washing machines. While these tariffs were intended to stimulate U.S. manufacturing by protecting domestic production, the focus soon turned to punitive tariffs against China. Between July and September 2018, the United States imposed a 25% levy on $50 billion of Chinese goods and a 10% tax on an additional $200 billion of goods, which was set to rise to 25% on January 1, 2019, unless China took steps to level the playing field. China retaliated by placing tariffs of 5% to 25% on $110 billion of U.S. goods, covering almost all U.S. exports to China.5–6
In December 2018, both nations agreed to a truce, and President Trump extended the deadline to raise tariffs. When negotiations broke down in early May 2019, the United States raised the 10% tariffs to 25% effective May 10, and Trump threatened to levy tariffs on the remaining $300 billion of Chinese goods. China retaliated by raising tariffs on more than half of U.S. goods already being taxed.7
Carrying the Costs
U.S. importers of Chinese goods must pay the actual tax, but the question is who absorbs the additional costs. An academic study of the 2018 tariffs found that Chinese exporters generally did not lower their prices, so part of the increased cost was absorbed by the importers, cutting into their profit margins, and the rest was passed on to U.S. consumers in the form of higher prices. The net cost to the U.S. economy was estimated to be $1.4 billion per month.8
Another study found that prices for nine categories of goods most affected by the tariffs increased by an average of 3% from early 2018 to early 2019, while the prices of other goods (excluding volatile food and energy) declined by 2%. This study also found that some U.S. manufacturers used the tariffs as an opportunity to raise prices, which is the fundamental purpose of protective tariffs — to allow domestic producers to set prices without being undercut by imports.9
The new 25% tariffs do not apply to Chinese goods that were already in transit as of May 10, so the effects may not reach U.S. consumers until later this summer. Based on the 2018 tariffs — only 10% on most imported goods — the increase to 25% will likely raise prices significantly on a wide range of consumer goods from laptops and mobile phones to clothing, furniture, sporting goods, luggage, and fish. Higher tariffs on supplies such as circuit boards, computer chips, and auto parts will likely be passed on to consumers as well.10 A Federal Reserve study estimated that the tariffs will cost the average household $831 per year.11
Shifting Supply Chains