Trade war could be harmful to economy

Tuesday , July 17, 2018 - 12:00 AM

WALL STREET JOURNAL EDITORIAL BOARD

The U.S. economy continues to show strength in the wake of tax reform and deregulation, but the downside of robust growth is that Donald Trump thinks this means he can dabble at trade war with impunity. He ought to look at the signs that growth would be even stronger if not for his border-tax brawls.

The latest evidence came in the minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's June meeting. Fed district presidents from around the U.S. reported evidence of strong growth, but along the way came this warning:

"However, many District contacts expressed concern about the possible adverse effects of tariffs and other proposed trade restrictions, both domestically and abroad, on future investment activity; contacts in some Districts indicated that plans for capital spending had been scaled back or postponed as a result of uncertainty over trade policy."

The minutes continued: "Contacts in the steel and aluminum industries expected higher prices as a result of the tariffs on these products but had not planned any new investments to increase capacity. Conditions in the agricultural sector reportedly improved somewhat, but contacts were concerned about the effect of potentially higher tariffs on their exports."

These reports are from the economy's ground floor, not the Beltway penthouse. They show that U.S. tariffs and the risks of retaliation are creating uncertainty that could reduce business investment. This probably won't show up in GDP for the recently completed second quarter because the tariff impact is only starting to be felt.

But investment decisions roll through the economy with a lag. More uncertainty means less investment, which means less growth, which means fewer jobs and slower wage gains. Mr. Trump isn't any more immune from the laws of economics than Barack Obama was.

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