October 10, 2018
By Alan Tonelson
Good luck to everyone trying to find some signs in this morning’s producer price report of President Trump’s tariffs igniting ruinous, raging inflation throughout the U.S. economy. How come? Because they aren’t there. Yet again.
Let’s quickly examine some of the main products in the tariff spotlight, starting with washing machines, imports of which were slapped in February with levies aimed at countering sharp surges of product streaming into U.S. markets that harm domestic producers (called “safeguard tariffs).
Even though this Producer Price Index (PPI) data from the Labor Department focus on inflation or lack thereof for wholesalers, it does contain information on the consumer goods in which wholesalers deal. This morning’s report shows that prices for “household appliances” (including several products aside from the tariff-ed washing machines) rose by 4.1 percent from September, 2017 to September, 2018. That’s higher than the 2.7 percent year-on-year overall advance for such goods less the volatile food and energy sectors. But it’s anything but the steepest price rise in this category.
Moreover, on a monthly basis, household appliance prices don’t seem to be going anywhere lately. Between June and July, they actually fell by 0.2 percent. From July to August, they dipped another 0.1 percent. From August to September, they increased by 1.3 percent. Again, that’s greater than the 0.1 percent average for “Final demand goods less foods and energy.” But not excessively so. P.S.:Household appliance prices are affected by many factors other than tariffs.
How about steel and aluminum, where a series of tariffs began to be imposed in late March? Steel mill product prices did indeed jump by 18.1 percent year-on-year in September. But here are the last three monthly prices changes: +1.6 percent, +2.6 percent, and zero percent. So let’s hold off on the inflation alarmism here, too. And don’t forget: Thanks to Chinese and other foreign subsidies, steel prices have long been depressed for reasons having almost nothing to do with free market forces. So the tariffs have mainly been encouraging the restoration of accurate price signals – something that all free market supporters should regard as key to long-term economic health and prosperity.
The ebbing of inflation is even more striking when it comes to aluminum mill shapes. In September, their prices rose by a sharp 10.1 percent on an annual basis. But over the last three months? They’ve actually fallen significantly – by three percent, 2.1 percent, and 0.3 percent, sequentially. So thanks to the tariffs, normality seems to be returning to the aluminum market, too.
Much the same story is being played out in metals-using sectors – where reports of tariffs-caused devastation have been widespread. The pricing developments in fabricated structural metals products are a typical example: up 8.3 percent year-on-year in September, down sequentially by 0.6 percent in July, up by 0.2 percent in August, up by 0.5 percent in September.
Softwood lumber from Canada is another important economic input being tariff-ed by President Trump – this time since last November. Of course, they resulted in forecasts of impending disaster for the U.S. housing industry. But the PPI report shows that softwood lumber prices were up only 5.4 percent on year in September, and have been dropping sharply on month since July – by 2.5 percent, 9.6 percent (I repeat: 9.6 percent!), and 0.4 percent. That looks like deflation, not inflation.
To repeat a point I’ve made often, it’s entirely possible that these pricing trends could reverse themselves in the months ahead. But since we’ve seen nothing of the kind so far, it’s also entirely legitimate to suppose that current trends will continue – and important to start examining possible reasons why. Even though such an exercise will doubtless be more difficult and less fun that repeating forecasts of Tariffs-mageddon.
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.