Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Obama's Tire Tariffs: A Very Valuable Failure

A few months after President Obama's 2009 decision to impose steep tariffs on Chinese tires under Section 421 of US trade law, I noted that it was looking to be an abject failure in terms of its core (and only) objective: helping the US tire industry and its workers.  Well, it's now been two years, and a (relatively) new report from the US-China Business Council (h/t Andy Roth) proves unequivocally that my initial impressions were dead-on:
Two years ago, the Obama administration imposed punitive tariffs on imported low-end tires from China. The objective was to protect and restore low-end tire manufacturing jobs in the United States. But do trade tariffs create jobs? Were tariffs the right or wrong remedy?

The answer: Probably the wrong remedy. US imports of the low-end tires involved in the case have actually increased substantially since the tariffs were imposed—but have shifted from China to other countries. And, there is no objective evidence that the tariff boosted US tire manufacturing jobs.
The paper goes on to show that, according to US government data, "[t]he biggest beneficiaries of the tariffs are probably tire producers in Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico and other countries that replaced supply from China."  Of course, anyone who understands trade diversion could have predicted this outcome (and a lot of us did - including US Trade Representative Ron Kirk who hilariously told a Brazilian delegation that they should welcome the President's decision because they'll export more tires to the US).  Unless US manufacturers are the second-most competitive producer of widgets on the planet, tariffs on imports from the #1 widget producer will almost always result in an increase in imports from other countries' widget producers, not from the US producers.  This is not just basic economics, it's also common sense - very well-documented common sense.

The only thing not mentioned in the new USCBC report is another commonsense outcome of protectionist tariffs - pain for American consumers in the form of higher prices.  In the case of tires, I've cited anecdotal evidence of such price increases, and a previous USCBC report documented significant price increases in the 10-month wake of President Obama's decision.  It'd be good to see more such analysis in the future.  And, of course, there's that sweet Chinese retaliation against US exporters in direct response to the Section 421 announcement.

Now, while the President's tire tariffs have proven to be an abject failure, they still provide us with an extremely visible and valuable lesson about anti-China protectionism: it inevitably produces higher prices for US consumers and retaliation against US exporters yet rarely helps US manufacturers and workers - something to think about when you hear campaigning politicians in both parties peddling China protectionism as some sort of magical solution to the United States' current economic woes.

It just doesn't work like that, and they should know better by now.

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