Tariffs on China Don’t Cover the Costs of Trump’s Trade War

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WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday portrayed America as being on the winning end of his trade war, saying tariffs are punishing China’s economy while generating billions of dollars for the United States, an economic victory that will allow him to continue his fight without domestic harm.

“We’ve taken in tens of billions of dollars in tariffs from China,” Mr. Trump told reporters during a “Made in America” product event at the White House. While China has taken $16 billion “off the table” by stopping its purchases of American agriculture, he said, the United States has “taken in much, much more — many times that in tariffs.”

But government figures show that the revenue the United States has collected from tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods is not enough to cover the cost of the president’s bailout for farmers, let alone compensate the many other industries hurt by trade tensions. The longer Mr. Trump’s dispute with China drags on, the more difficult it could be for him to ignore that gap.

Mr. Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports raised $20.8 billion through Wednesday, according to data from United States Customs and Border Protection. Mr. Trump has already committed to paying American farmers hurt by the trade war $28 billion.

There is little sign, though, that China’s loss is America’s gain. Much of the business activity is shifting to other low-cost countries, like Vietnam, with a transition cost attached for American companies that depend on them.

Numerous companies have announced changes in their supply chains or other effects from the tariffs, and more could be revealed as companies report second-quarter earnings in coming weeks. Nintendo has accelerated the shift of its Switch console to Vietnam from China, according to Panjiva, a supply chain research firm, while GoPro, Hasbro and other companies are reworking their supply chains to reduce their exposure to China.

The president and his advisers have argued that now is the time to try to force China to change trading practices that they say have hurt American companies and resulted in the loss of American jobs. The administration argues that the status quo was not without costs to the American economy. An investigation by the administration into Chinese intellectual property theft found that China’s policies had resulted in harm to the American economy of at least $50 billion per year.

Many trade experts and business leaders support confronting Beijing, and some have said the heavy cost of the trade war will be worth it if the United States can persuade China to open up its economy. But most disagree with the administration’s claim that the trade war is having no negative effect on American businesses.

“Certainly it is absolute folly to suggest that this is cost free for the U.S.,” said Rufus Yerxa, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents major American exporters.

Numerous studies have shown that American consumers are bearing much of the cost of the tariffs. Studies from the Tax Foundation in Washington and the Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that the tariffs amount to a significant tax increase on Americans, by raising the prices of goods. The damage is concentrated, as a percentage of income, among the lowest earners, who spend a larger share of their pay on imports than the upper middle class and the rich.

The administration has gradually increased the amount of Chinese goods subject to tariffs over the last year, from an initial $34 billion to a total of $250 billion, and ramped up the tariff rate on those goods.

But the monthly pace of revenue collection from tariffs has not increased this year. That’s because America is importing fewer Chinese goods than it did a year ago, which has canceled out the higher tariffs on a larger share of Chinese goods.

That decline appears to be the product of an overall slowdown in trade — which has contributed to weakened exports for American manufacturers — and the shift in supply chains to other countries. Imported goods from Vietnam have risen more than 30 percent this year from a year ago, Commerce Department data show.

Tariff revenue would likely surge if Mr. Trump followed through on his threat to impose tariffs on nearly all Chinese goods.

The administration has tried to put the levers of the government to work to shelter and support American businesses. On Monday, Mr. Trump signed an executive order requiring that 95 percent of the steel and iron that goes into projects funded by federal contracts eventually be American made, up from 50 percent.

The order is the latest in a series of proclamations that the president has made to encourage more purchases of American goods. An order in January encouraged companies to use American iron, steel, aluminum, cement and other products to the extent practical, but did not set any binding target.

John Ferriola, the chief executive of Nucor, a steel company in North Carolina, applauded the move. “We believe it’s good for our country, and it’s certainly good for the industry, I can’t deny that,” he said.

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