With the idea of aiding American businesses and punishing overseas trading partners, the White House has threatened or slapped tariffs on more than $200 billion of imported goods, leading to retaliation. Solar panels, jeans, motorcycles, pork, soybeans, steel, aluminum, cars, insect repellent, tilapia, lobsters, cranberries, cheese: The list of items caught in the crossfire is large and growing. That has forced more and more businesses to react. Some companies, like domestic commodity producers, have benefited from the tariffs. Others have said they would shift production overseas to avoid them, alter their supply chains to soften the impact, or start passing price increases onto consumers.
The effect on American growth stands to be small but noticeable, economists said. Paul Ashworth, the chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said he estimated the hit at 0.1 or 0.2 percentage points of GDP. Morgan Stanley put the direct impact at 0.3 percentage points, with a variety of other forecasters and economic analysts coming up with similar numbers. “There is no question that the short-run impact of the tariffs is to weaken GDP,” said Chris Varvares of Macroeconomic Advisers by IHS Markit, a forecasting firm. That said, he added, “even sizable tariffs are not recession inducing” given the kind of growth the country is seeing right now.
But the trade war is more than just tariffs. Trump’s actions might reduce consumer confidence, undercut business investment, and reduce investors’ appetite for risk. Companies anticipating more tariffs and export barriers, for instance, might choose not to expand their operations in the United States. “Since workers and firms don’t know if they might be impacted by retaliatory tariffs, including losing your job or shutting down your firm, the U.S. imposing tariffs is the economic equivalent of a game of Russian roulette,” Varvares said, adding that the economic impact of such decision making was far harder to model and measure.
Plus, there is the risk that the trade war could continue to escalate, doing far more damage to global growth. Economists at UBS have estimated that a leveled-up dispute might slow global growth down by a percentage point—including as much as 2.5 percentage points in the United States and 2.3 percentage points in China. In that scenario, there would be “severe” implications for the stock market, which could fall as much as 21 percent in the United States.
Even if the overall GDP effect remains muted—just a few tenths of a percentage point—some communities and consumers stand to feel it much harder than others. Agricultural businesses, for instance, are bracing for tariffs. “For soybean producers like me this is a direct financial hit,” Brent Bible, a soy and corn farmer based in Indiana, said in a statement. “This is money out of my pocket. These tariffs could mean the difference between a profit and a loss for an entire year’s worth of work out in the field, and that’s only in the near term.” The auto industry is also warning that Trump’s threatened tariffs might cost thousands of production jobs—losses that would be concentrated in Rust Belt states such as Michigan, among others.