Editorial: Trade War Watch 1: Yes, We Can Start a Trade War

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

President Obama paid his outstanding union dues and slapped a 35 percent punitive tariff on Chinese car and light truck tires exported to the USA. The new duty will take effect on September 26 and comes in addition to an existing 4 percent duty, Reuters reports. Everybody, except for the United Steelworkers, agrees that this is one of the most boneheaded decisions of the new administration.

No American tire manufacturer supported the case. Cooper Tire even publicly opposed it. No wonder: US tire companies are the biggest offenders (in the eyes of the United Steelworkers), having moved most if not all of their budget segment tire production to low labor cost overseas sites. Chinese tires are not in the USA because China wants to rape and pillage the market. Chinese tires are here, because US tire companies set up joint ventures in China to make what the market demands: Tires for less.

China is not the only exporter of budget tires to the USA. According to the Wall Street Journal, 43 percent of the tires sold in the USA are imported. Only 11 percent are imported from China. The far larger share is imported from low labor cost countries such as Malaysia, India, or Central Europe. What the boneheaded decision does is simply shift tire production from China to other low cost producing countries. These countries can take advantage of 11 percent of the tires effectively removed from the US market. The low cost producers can raise their prices until the market settles. The American consumer will bear the cost. Not a single new job is created in US tire companies. Jobs will be lost at tire distributors and dealers. This decision achieves nothing for America except higher prices and troubles with China.

The American Consuming Industries Trade Action Coalition wrote in a letter to the US Trade Representative John Kirk: “The absence of tires from China in the market will raise costs to downstream consuming industries, including automobile manufacturers, will limit consumer choices and affect most seriously those with the fewest resources. Thus, these tariffs will be the most regressive of taxes.”

“Those with the fewest resources” (i.e., the poor) are easiest sold on buying the import-restriction Kool-Aid. They drink it in big gulps: Imports bad for jobs. When they find out that fewer low cost imports mean higher prices, that they still have no jobs, and that their welfare check buys much less, then it’s too late.

The complaint by the US Steelworkers does not allege unfair trade practices. No longer needed. In US law, there is a special anti-China provision, called section 421. The Hong Kong Trade Development Council explains the complicated law in the most succinct way: “Under Section 421, the USITC determines whether a specific product from the mainland is being imported into the U.S. in such increased quantities, or under such conditions, as to cause or threaten to cause market disruption. ‘Market disruption’ is defined as rapidly increasing imports, either absolutely or relatively, so as to cause or threaten to cause material injury to a U.S. domestic industry. If the USITC makes an affirmative determination it proposes a remedy, which the president may or may not implement.”

The USITC is the United States International Trade Commission, “an independent, quasi-judicial federal agency that provides trade policy advice to both the legislative and executive branches of government.” The USITC is often called the International Trade Commission to give it a fake supranational flair. It’s pure US government.

“Market disruption” is a vague concept. If anyone feels disrupted by Chinese imports, they can petition the USITC. If the USITC accepts it and takes it to the president, and if he signs it, no more Chinese imports. Under Bush, for all his failings, every section 421 petition that reached his desk was rejected: He had to decide on strategically important goods such as wire hangers, steel pipe, brake drums and rotors and “pedestal actuators,” a component used in scooters for the disabled. All voted down.

Obama approved the first 421 petition that was put before him. China and US companies are rightly afraid that this will trigger a flurry of section 421 cases. “Multinational companies such as Caterpillar Inc., Citigroup Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have urged Obama to refrain from curbing imports, saying it could lead to a “downward protectionist spiral,” writes Bloomberg.

The United Steelworkers based their complaint on the allegation that Chinese tires had cost a paltry 5,000 union jobs over a number of years. Which of course is bunk. The jobs were lost because US consumers increasingly refuse to buy the high priced tires, and because US tire companies have reacted to consumer demand and moved their production elsewhere. Only one fourth of the tire imports comes from China.

Understandably, the Chinese are deeply upset. China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, writes, “This ruling came at a time when the U.S. economy is at an uncertain turning point from the worst recession since World War II.” Officially, China exercises restraint. “Observers said that the president needs his people to help make domestic reform smoother,” is as low as Xinhua wants to publicly stoop.

The verbiage from China’s Ministry of Commerce is stronger: “China expressed strong dissatisfaction and is resolutely opposed to this,” said China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOC) spokesman Yao Jian. “This does not comply with WTO agreements on subsidies. The U.S. used an incorrect method to define and calculate the subsidies, which has resulted in an artificially high subsidy rate, hurting Chinese firms’ interests.”

What China is likely to do is threefold:

One, China will drag the USA in front of the WTO. China will have the tacit or open support from other low-cost countries, including the EU (many low cost countries, such as Poland or Romania are EU members.) The world will also love to slap around a country that demanded free trade as long as free trade was good for America. Note that China mentioned “subsidies.” The bail-outs will come on the table also. WTO proceedings can drag on forever.

Two, China will take some tit-for-tat measures. On the table is a hefty tariff on US auto imports to China. During the first half of the year, China imported more than $1 billion worth of automobiles from the US. China could buy fewer Boeings and more Airbusses. If things get really bad, China could put a dent in the Chinese growth of the automotive ward of the state, GM. Europe will love it all.

Three, Chinese President Hu Jintao will give Obama a tongue-lashing when they meet in Pittsburgh at the G-20 Summit September 24-25. Obama will be gently or not so gently reminded that America’s largest creditor deserves a little better treatment, or the money could be moved elsewhere. Timothy Geithner will also be reminded that his announcement in June that “Chinese assets are very safe” is bunk. The greenback is on its way down. A EURO bought $1.46 today and it’s heading toward $1.50. Come to think of it, a falling dollar is the best protection against cheap imports from all corners of the world: The lower the dollar, the more expensive the imports. A truly free market needs no section 421.

Forbes writes: “The current round of disputes will undoubtedly end up in a trade war, and China, a country extraordinarily dependent on exports, will surely be the biggest loser.”

Don’t bet on it.

America is already involved in two shooting wars which it couldn’t afford would China not buy its bonds. America cannot afford two shooting wars and a trade war with its largest creditor.

Bertel Schmitt
Bertel Schmitt

Bertel Schmitt comes back to journalism after taking a 35 year break in advertising and marketing. He ran and owned advertising agencies in Duesseldorf, Germany, and New York City. Volkswagen A.G. was Bertel's most important corporate account. Schmitt's advertising and marketing career touched many corners of the industry with a special focus on automotive products and services. Since 2004, he lives in Japan and China with his wife <a href="http://www.tomokoandbertel.com"> Tomoko </a>. Bertel Schmitt is a founding board member of the <a href="http://www.offshoresuperseries.com"> Offshore Super Series </a>, an American offshore powerboat racing organization. He is co-owner of the racing team Typhoon.

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  • Lokkii Lokkii on Sep 14, 2009

    +1 Geeber There are lies, damn'd lies, and statistics. From what I've read your version is closer to the truth than the claims that rank us so low on the international healthcare totempole. Another factor that I believe (with zero evidence, so let's make sure that's clear to everyone) is that our more diverse population with a substantial percentage (compared to other countries) of recent immigrants adversely impacts our statistics. Say you have - just to grab a number 12M people who didn't have good health care or diets as children move to your country. You may find that the health of this population has an adverse impact on your numbers. Just speculating.

  • Anonymous Anonymous on Feb 01, 2012

    [...] wouldn’t it bring jobs back to America? The experience with the tire tariff, enacted on instigation of the United Steelworkers, says otherwise: The production of cheap tires simply moved from China to Thailand. From there, the [...]

  • James Hendricks The depreciation on the Turbo S is going to be epic!
  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.
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