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How China won Trump's trade war and got Americans to foot the bill

Bloomberg News, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Trump said that tariffs would encourage U.S. manufacturers to move production back home, and in a 2019 tweet he “ordered” them to “immediately start looking for an alternative to China.” But there is little evidence of any such shift taking place.

U.S. direct investment into China increased slightly from $12.9 billion in 2016 to $13.3 billion in 2019, according to Rhodium Group data.

More than three quarters of 200-plus U.S. manufacturers in and around Shanghai surveyed in September said they didn’t intend to move production out of China. U.S. companies regularly cite the rapid growth of China’s consumer market combined with its strong manufacturing capabilities as reasons for expanding there. “No matter how high the Trump administration raised any tariffs, it was going to be very difficult to dissuade US companies from investing,” said Ker Gibbs, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

Trump claimed that tariffs had boosted the U.S. economy, while causing China’s economy to have its “worst year in over 50” in 2019. However, direct economic impacts were small relative to the size of the two countries’ economies as the value of exports between them are tiny relative to gross domestic product.

China grew at or above 6% in both 2018 and 2019, with tariffs costing it about 0.3% of GDP over those years, according to Yang Zhou, an economist at the University of Minnesota. By her estimate, the trade war cost the U.S. 0.08% GDP over the same period. The clearest winner was Vietnam, where the tariffs boosted GDP by nearly 0.2 percentage point as companies relocated.

Trump repeatedly claimed that China was paying for the tariffs. Economists who crunched the numbers were surprised to find that Chinese exporters generally didn’t lower prices to keep their goods competitive after the tariffs were imposed. That meant U.S. duties were mostly paid by its own companies and consumers.

 

The tariffs led to an income loss for U.S. consumers of about $16.8 billion annually in 2018, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research paper.

Another own goal: Tariffs on imports from China tended to reduce U.S. exports. That was because globalized supply chains mean manufacturing is shared between countries, and the U.S. raised the costs of its own goods by levying duties on imports of Chinese components.

Companies which together account for 80% of U.S. exports had to pay higher prices for Chinese imports, according to analysis of confidential company data by researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve, reducing export growth.

Trump campaigned hard back in 2016 on pledges to revive the Rust Belt by taking on China and bringing the jobs back home. It didn’t happen.

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