By Alan Tonelson
July 20, 2018
With the mainstream media filled with articles (see, e.g., here, here, and here) on how President Trump’s current and proposed trade tariffs are already inflicting major damage on the U.S. economy, it’s useful to look at the official data capable of shedding maximum light on the situation. Fortunately, in this respect, Washington just released U.S. employment and manufacturing production statistics that can achieve just such a goal, and their message couldn’t be clearer: Although anecdotal accounts point to possible reasons for concern, the most comprehensive information available portrays these reports as completely unrepresentative – at least so far.
Principally, in late March, the Trump administration began imposed levies on steel and aluminum imports. It’s logical to suppose that the nation’s steel-using industries and their workers in particular would be big losers so far, since the steel tariffs of 25 percent are much higher than the ten percent levies on aluminum. But the data make clear that no such conclusions are justified to this point.
Let’s start with production, where statistics (from the Federal Reserve) go through June (on a preliminary basis). They show that, since April (the first few months during which any tariffs had any effects), overall domestic American manufacturing output (which includes all the industries that aren’t major steel users) has dipped by 0.21 percent.
Real production in durable goods sectors (which include all the big steel-using industries) is down, too – but by a bare 0.05 percent.
And many especially heavy metals-using industries have been doing better still. After inflation output in fabricated metal products rose by 0.90 percent between April and June. Constant dollar machinery production is down 0.75 percent – but that drop clearly reflects some mean reversion from the 2.27 percent jump between March and April. Automotive (combined vehicles and parts production) has fallen by 0.68 percent in real terms since April, but much of the decline stems from the supply chain effects of a fire at a factory producing parts for a popular model.
Appliances look like an important exception. Between April and June, constant dollar production in small appliances has tumbled by 3.31 percent, and in major appliances by 3.16 percent. But both sectors had been struggling for years before the Trump tariffs. In the former, it was down on net since February, 2015; in the latter, since September, 2016. By contrast, real output in the other metals-using industries was up strongly during those periods.
The jobs figures (from the Labor Department, which also go through June, preliminarily) tell a similar story. Overall manufacturing output has advanced by 0.43 percent since April. In durable goods industries, it’s improved by 0.57 percent.
In fabricated metals, however, payrolls have grown by 0.72 percent since April, and in machinery, by 0.95 percent during this period. The automotive sector has trailed these two in job creation, but has still nudged its employment up by 0.04 percent since April. And the 0.47 percent decrease in overall appliance employment (separate figures for small and major products aren’t available) continues that sector’s record as a significant jobs laggard.
What will the future hold? That’s anyone’s guess. It’s also true that tariff-produced price increases tend to take their time working their way through corporate supply chains, and that at the end of May, the administration imposed a second, big round of metals tariffs on three big metals-exporting trade competitors exempted from the first round: the European Union, Canada, and Mexico.
But it’s also true that there’s no statistical evidence to date that the metals tariffs, many of which have been in effect since late March, have harmed upstream industries, and plenty of statistical evidence that these metals consumers have been faring just fine – and then some. Fake News, anyone?
Alan Tonelson is Founder of the blog RealityChek – www.alantonelson.wordpress.com – which covers a wide range of domestic and international policy issues along with political and social trends.
For 18 years before leaving to launch RealityChek, Tonelson followed the impact of globalization on the U.S. economy, domestic manufacturing, and U.S. national security for the U.S. Business and Industry Council. This national business organization represents nearly 2,000 domestic American companies, most of them small and medium-sized manufacturers.
Alan Tonelson is a regular columnist with Industry Today.