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The accumulating impacts and costs of trade wars

Contributed by Derrell S. Peel Published on 18 January 2019

Evolving market dynamics make it easy to underestimate how the impacts and costs of trade issues will continue to grow in 2019. Many agricultural markets have been impacted thus far, and the damage will grow and spread unless resolutions are forthcoming promptly. Trade issues will have accumulating impacts in a variety of ways as more time passes.

The most obvious impacts of trade wars are the direct impacts of tariffs and disruptions in trade flows in specific markets. This includes numerous agricultural markets, in particular soybeans and pork as a result of reciprocal tariffs with China, and pork and dairy markets as a result of the retaliatory tariffs from U.S.-imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum. The new NAFTA (USMCA) agreement is not yet ratified and implemented, but in any event, much of the benefit is negated by these other tariffs.

Economic impacts of tariffs may be initially limited mostly to changes in margins if the disruptions are perceived to be short-lived. Later the impacts will evolve from the initial market shock to larger and more permanent adjustments. With more time and ongoing uncertainty about trade issues, more and more of the cost of tariffs is passed on to buyers; alternative product flows develop; and lost market shares become much more difficult to undo. The direct costs of tariffs are difficult to measure but certainly grow over time.

Even more difficult to measure are the lost opportunities associated with trade issues. It’s difficult to know how much you lost from something you never had. For example, the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) two years ago. The remaining 11 countries continued and launched the revised TPP (CPTPP) in January 2019. Not only does the U.S. not have the benefit of tariff adjustments and increased market access with TPP, going forward the U.S. will be increasingly less competitive and likely lose ground relative to TPP participants. The stated U.S. intention to negotiate bilateral trade deals with Japan and others has so far not resulted in new agreements or even serious discussions. Any agreements that may result are many months if not years away.

In China, the U.S. beef industry had barely begun to build on the market access achieved in 2017 before tariffs hit in 2018. What was expected to be a lengthy process to grow market share for U.S. beef is now at a standstill. While the tariffs didn’t result in significant direct impact since little U.S. beef was exported to China, it certainly is restricting any chance for U.S. beef to participate in the growing Chinese market for beef.

Finally, the uncertainty of global trade turmoil takes a significant but largely unmeasurable toll on the economy. It is nearly impossible to know how much trade and investment has been postponed or abandoned as a result of trade uncertainty the past two years. The combined direct impacts, lost trade opportunities and ongoing uncertainty are reducing growth potential for U.S. and global economies, and those impacts are likely to grow in 2019, barring improvement in trade issues. The U.S. macroeconomy has been strong thus far, but that doesn’t mean that there were no trade impacts, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean that the economy can continue to absorb trade-related blows without more obvious damage.

The beef industry enjoyed strong demand and supportive trade in 2018, but who knows what it might have been without trade impacts? More importantly, growing trade impacts on domestic and international markets could mean that (obvious) negative impacts will be apparent in 2019, while lost opportunities that are less obvious will no doubt continue and grow.  end mark

Derrell S. Peel is an Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist. This originally appeared in the Jan. 7, 2019, OSU Cow/Calf Corner newsletter.