As you know if you’ve looked at any morning paper, the Trump administration has proposed an escalating tariff on all imports from Mexico, starting at 5 percent on June 10th and rising by five percentage points each month until it reaches 25 percent. The tariffs are intended to force Mexico to take actions to reduce the flow of migrants into the U.S. Trump said the tariffs will remain in place until Mexico “substantially stops the illegal inflow of aliens coming through its territory.”
Here’s a Q&A on this proposed action. Initially, it may not look like a big deal for us (much more so for Mexico). But if it doesn’t fizzle quickly, and I don’t think it will, it could turn out to be important along various dimensions.
Q: Isn’t this is an unusual use of tariffs?
A: It is. The majority of tariff cases stem from countries arguing about trade, as is the case with China. Country A objects to country B “dumping” a specific export (“rubber tires, grade c”) at below cost in order to corner market share and Country A imposes a “countervailing duty” to level the playing field. Or, as with China, we object to their trade practices (though I’ve argued this attack is somewhat overblown).
Yes, tariffs have been used as a geopolitical tactic, to protect what Hamilton called “infant industries,” and to support the buildup of domestic industries to achieve import substitution (tariffs were also the main source of government revenue in early America). But I’m not aware of a case where tariffs have been used to block immigration.
Q: Ok, it’s an unusual idea. But is it a bad idea?
A: Yes, for two broad reasons. First, I have the same objection to this tariff as to any other sweeping tariff (versus the more targeted “dumping” example above): by disrupting broad trade flows and indiscriminately raising costs on swaths of industries and consumers, it is a blunt policy tool that may have been useful in Hamilton’s day but is no longer so. Trump envisions widespread import substitution, but his vision is atavistic. Trade flows and inter-country commerce are too far advanced to be wholly rewired. I don’t think the globalization omelet can be unscrambled but even if it could, the victory would be a Pyrrhic one on all sides of the borders.
We’re especially integrated with Mexico. The WSJ reports that “about two-thirds of U.S.-Mexico trade is between factories owned by the same company.” Those are largely auto manufacturers, as we import $93 billion in cars and parts from Mexico (as a share of our imports, that’s 5x our China share), computers, food, and hundreds more goods. According to Goldman Sachs researchers, 44 percent of our air conditioners and 35 percent of our TVs are imported from Mexico. After China, Mexico was our largest source of imports last year (we imported $350 billion from them last year, and exported $265 billion).
Second, it is a well-documented fact that unauthorized immigration from the Mexico has declined in recent years. What’s gone up is asylum seekers from Central American countries torn by violence and gangs. In this regard, the “crisis” at the border is of the Trump administration’s own making. Suppose this tariff got Mexico to do more to shut its southern border to asylum seekers. On legal, humanitarian grounds, that should be no one’s definition of success.
Q: What about the economic costs?
A: The direct costs start out too small to matter to our economy, but indirect costs could be steeper. Initially, $17 billion (5% * $350bn) is less than 0.1% of U.S. GDP. Tariffs work like a sales tax on U.S. consumers, but few would notice this initial installment. It is, however, worth pausing for a second to consider the weirdness of this aspect of the proposal: U.S. consumers are paying an anti-asylum-seeker tax. But as the Trump administration is aware, the U.S. is much more insulated from trade than those with whom we wage trade wars. We import 15 percent of GDP and export 12 percent. Those shares are much larger for our trading partners.
This could, however, be a bigger direct problem for Mexico, as their economy is already flat; Mexican GDP growth was about zero in the first quarter of this year, and their exports to the U.S., their largest trading partner, account for about 37 percent of their economy. It’s true that U.S. consumers pay the direct costs of tariffs, but it’s also true that exporters targeted by tariffs will also feel some pain, especially when we’re talking about such deep, large (from Mexico’s perspective) supply chains that cannot be handily redirected.
But there’s also a plausible scenario where this Mexico tariff seriously dings our economy, through at least two related channels: financial markets and investment. Equity and bond markets are initially reacting predictably negatively to the proposal, with auto shares taking a beating. I don’t worry about day-to-day market swings, but worse financial conditions, if they persist, clearly bleed through to growth, and thus to jobs, wages, and especially investment, where investors have increasingly been complaining about the “uncertainty engendered by the escalating trade war.
Relative to many economists, I’ve downplayed the “uncertainty” card; economies, like life itself, are always uncertain. But while I haven’t done the analysis (I will), I think there’s a signal building from trade uncertainty to the weak numbers we’ve been posting on business investment. This is especially the case given factors pushing the other way, such as low borrowing rates, strong consumer demand (albeit with recent hiccups), and high corporate profitability.
I’m not predicting recession, of course. Economists cannot reliably do so and the unemployment rate remains at a 50-year low. But the trade war was already a headwind and if this Mexican tariff goes through, that wind will gain velocity.
Q: Wait a minute. Trump may be crazy, but surely, he doesn’t want to undermine the economy, especially with a reelection campaign in the offing.
A: You’d think so—I certainly have—but this is yet another thing many of us have gotten wrong about him. The Trump recipe, according to observers including myself, has been: create chaos, capture the media, propose a nothing-burger solution, claim victory. And do all this before the sh__ hits the fan, i.e., before there’s real economic damage. And, in fact, there’s some evidence that Trump largely plays with house money, meaning he creates economic chaos when the economy and markets are strong enough to shake it off.
But lately, he and his team seem more committed to sticking with their interventions, even when there are clear costs, as in the market and investment data. True, labor markets, job growth, real wages—those most fundamental indicators—remain solid. If that were to change, perhaps we’d see the same outcome as when the air-traffic controllers said, “it’s over,” re the government shutdown.
But those of us whose theory of the case is that when it comes to damaging the U.S. economy, Trump will only go so far, may need to update our priors. If this Mexican tariff goes into place and then escalates, we may be looking at an administration that is willing to sustain a lot more damage to achieve their wrongheaded, protectionist, anti-humanitarian goals.