HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK
- President Trump announced tariffs on steel and aluminium imports to take effect in 15 days. The scope is narrower than initially announced. Mexico and Canada are exempt, and more allies may be excluded once the levies take effect.
- The American economy continues to hum along, with a very solid job report in February. The Fed’s Beige Book also painted a relatively rosy picture, but also one where businesses are starting to pass higher costs onto customers.
- Inflationary pressures are building in the U.S., and import tariffs will increase the force. This presents a challenge for the Fed which will have to incorporate the uncertain impacts of fiscal stimulus, and now tariffs into its forecast.
All Signs Point to Higher Inflation
Politics overshadowed economics this week as markets awaited Trump’s announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs. When it came on Thursday afternoon the scope was narrower than first thought. Canada and Mexico are exempt from the tariffs as long as negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement continue, and other allies may ultimately be exempt once the tariffs are put in place in 15 days. Together Canada and Mexico represent a quarter of American steel imports and 43 percent of aluminum. America’s neighbors may now benefit from the plan as they take market share from other countries slapped with tariffs.
However, trading partners are expected to retaliate, levying tariffs on U.S. exports. Economic studies have shown that the overall costs to the economy from these trade battles outweigh the job gains in the protected sector. Our own estimates for the steel and aluminum tariffs specifically suggest the overall growth impacts in the large U.S. economy would be fairly modest, but that they could raise inflation a couple of tenths of a percentage point.
The President didn’t stop at steel and aluminum. He reiterated his goal to reverse the U.S. trade deficit, and that he may implement a reciprocal or “mirror tax” to help achieve this. He offered few details, but suggested the U.S. would slap the same level of duties on trading partners that U.S. companies face in those countries. These actions will raise prices for many U.S. businesses that use the materials as inputs in manufacturing, and ultimately raise prices for consumers, adding to budding inflation pressures across the economy.
This week’s economic data certainly doesn’t suggest the U.S. needs economic protection. Payrolls grew by an impressive 313k jobs in February. The unemployment rate stayed at its 17-year low of 4.1%, where it has been since October. Hiring has accelerated in recent months, driven by the goods sector, which had stumbled somewhat in the wake of the oil price crash, but is now making up the lost ground. Wage growth cooled slightly, with average hourly earnings up 2.6% versus a year ago, down from 2.8% in January. However, when this volatile series is smoothed, wage gains have been steady at around 2.6% for about a year, and have been outpacing inflation for over three years.
The Fed’s Beige Book also painted a picture of an economy that is humming along. Fed districts universally reported labor market tightness and heightened demand for qualified workers. Several districts reported increasing compensation as a result of the tax cuts that came into effect at the start of the year. The report also suggested that businesses are increasingly passing on increases in input prices. A variety of forces are expected to push inflation higher this year, the only question is how quickly.
The risks that inflation will accelerate faster than the Fed currently expects are mounting. The FOMC’s next announcement is on March 21st, and a hike at the meeting is essentially a lock. We currently expect three 25-basis point moves in 2018, but the risks are skewed to more hikes rather than fewer.
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