The Trade War Cost to Consumers, Companies and Nations

The level of U.S. tariffs on Chinese products and the number of goods they cover are constantly changing as the trade dispute between the world's two largest economies escalates. To help investors evaluate the possible macroeconomic impact from the trade war, we put together a back-of-the-envelope economic analysis (Figure 1). Like any similar approach, it contains many simplifying assumptions and will not fully capture the complex reality of the dispute's economic impact, but it will provide a framework for evaluating the effects on inflation, corporate profits, federal revenues and Chinese GDP. As is the case with monetary and fiscal policies and currency movements etc., there are many second and third order possibilities to consider.

Let's break down the assumptions into their four categories:

U.S. Inflation

Import tariffs are essentially a sales tax and raise costs for consumers. The question is by how much? The simplest assumption is that consumers will bear 100% of the cost of the increased tariffs. For example, if the U.S. has a $20 trillion GDP and the government imposes a 10% tariff on $200 billion worth of imported goods, then U.S. consumers would see the average price level rise by 0.1% (10% X $200 billion / $20 trillion).

The good news for consumers is that this calculation ignores the notion that some of the impact on consumer prices will likely be absorbed in the form of lower corporate profits -- both in the United States and China. Additionally, the trade war negatively impacts China's renminbi (RMB) and through it many emerging market currencies (Figure 2).

Weaker emerging market currencies translate to lower import costs for U.S. consumers, offsetting a portion of the tariff impact. As such, we assume that roughly half of the consumer impact from higher tariffs will be absorbed elsewhere.

Corporate Profits

If 100% of the impact of the trade dispute came out of corporate profits, a 10% tariff on $200 billion worth of goods would lower U.S. corporate profits by the equivalent of 0.05% of GDP. Since corporate after-tax profits are around 9% of GDP, that would mean that corporate profits would fall by around 0.5% or 0.6%. If the tariff goes to 25%, then U.S. corporate profits could fall by 1.25-1.5%, if the impacts of the trade dispute were fully absorbed by lower profit margins. However, some of the costs are likely to be passed along to consumers.

Moreover, some of the negative impact of the trade war will also be buffered by Chinese enterprises, which may offset some of the tariff impact by lowering their own profits margins. Finally, if the value of the Chinese currency falls (and it already has) and drags other currencies lower, this could also hurt U.S. corporate profits. As such, we estimate that about half of the cost of the tariffs will in one way or another be borne by U.S. corporations by way of lower profit margins.

Compared to the size of corporate profits, the tariff impact is relatively modest, which may explain why U.S. equities aren't too troubled by it. It may also explain why the tech heavy NASDAQ and the small cap Russell 2000 have outperformed the multinationals-dominated Dow Jones Industrials Average and the S&P 500®. Many of the big U.S. tech firms that dominate the NASDAQ 100 (Google (GOOGL) , Amazon (AMZN) , etc.) have limited access to Chinese markets and are relatively unaffected by China's retaliatory measures. Likewise, many U.S. small caps focus on the domestic market and their supply lines are not likely to be negatively impacted like those of the bigger firms that dominate the Dow and S&P.

Federal Revenues

Trade disputes aren't all bad news. Following the tax cuts and spending increases, the Federal deficit ballooned from 2.2% of GDP in 2016 to over 4% this year and could hit 5.0-6.0% in 2019. Tariffs are a tax and imposing tariffs raises revenue for the federal government.

Some of the revenue raised directly from tariffs could be offset, however, by lower tax collections from corporate taxes to the extent that the trade dispute lowers corporate profits. Also, if the trade war slows job creation or wage growth, it could lower personal income and payroll tax collections. By our estimate, a 10% tax on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods will bring in about 0.1% of GDP worth of tax revenue. A 25% tax will bring in around 0.2%. These revenues will reduce the federal budget deficit very slightly, but they won't be nearly enough to halt the rapid growth in federal deficits.

China GDP

Valued at current exchange rates, China has a $12 trillion economy. A 10% U.S. tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods will probably erase about 0.1-0.2% from GDP. A 25% tariff could widen that to 0.3-0.4% of GDP, all else being equal. The good news for China is that all else isn't equal. China can counter some of the negative impact by allowing its currency to fall and the RMB is already down by about 9% since mid-April. Moreover, China has other tools at its disposal, including monetary and fiscal stimulus. A tax cut will go into effect in September and the People's Bank of China (PBoC) has already reduced its reserve requirement ratio twice in the past four months. As such, some of the negative GDP impact can be partially offset, at least in the short run.

"All else equal," doesn't necessarily work out in China's favor, however. China has high debt levels and slower growth could make it more difficult to deleverage its economy. Moreover, high levels of leverage could foster a negative spiral where slower growth leads to business failures and defaults which, in turn, lead to even slower growth and more failures and defaults. The Chinese government and the PBoC have the ammunition to prevent such a spiral from occurring in the short term, but by easing fiscal and monetary policy they risk increasing public and private sector debt. As such, if the trade war chickens don't come home to roost now, they might later and in greater numbers.

Other Limitations

Our set of back-of-the-envelope calculations also does not account for China's response to the U.S. tariffs. Any retaliatory measures will likely boost consumer prices in China, lower profit margins and GDP growth on both sides of the Pacific and raise a small amount of revenue for the Chinese government, whose public debt is growing. Once again, our back-of-the-envelope model is not intended to make a precise economic forecast. We also don't consider the possible impact on U.S. monetary policy, which could become either tighter or looser in response to the trade dispute than it might otherwise be. Rather, it is our hope that the calculations below will provide a useful framework for considering possible economic implications of the trade dispute on the U.S. and Chinese economies, both of which are extremely complex.

One last point: we also calculate the impact of applying tariffs on all Chinese goods coming into the U.S. which total about $500 billion -- so $300 billion in addition to the $200 billion already likely subject to tariffs.

Figure 1: Possible Economic Impact Under Three Scenarios (Tariffs on $34B, $200B & $500B of Goods)

Under a worst-case scenario that a 25% tariff is applied to all Chinese goods, one could see a 0.3% rise in U.S. CPI, a similar fall in corporate profits as a percentage of GDP (so about a 3.3% drop in overall corporate profits) and a 0.8% hit to Chinese GDP. On the other hand, if one sticks to the Administration's original proposal of 10% tariffs on $34 billion of goods, then the impact of the trade dispute is negligible.

Figure 2: Both the Renminbi and Other Emerging Currencies are Falling.

Written by Erik Norland. Read more from the author here.

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