Who’s afraid of a trade war?

Can you be afraid of something that doesn’t exist?

Economist Ian Fletcher writes in the HuffPo:

Trade wars are mythical. They simply do not happen.

If you google “the trade war of,” you won’t find any historical examples. There was no Austro-Korean Trade War of 1638, Panamanian-Brazilian Trade War of 1953 or any others. History is devoid of them.

Please don’t respond with that old canard about the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 starting a trade war and causing the Great Depression. It doesn’t stand up, as actual economic historians from Milton Friedman on the right to Paul Krugman on the left have documented. See here, and here, and here.

The Depression’s cause was monetary. The Fed allowed the money supply to balloon during the late 1920s, piling up in the stock market as a bubble. It then panicked, miscalculated, and let it collapse by a third by 1933, depriving the economy of the liquidity it needed to breathe. A wave of bank failures in 1930 spread the collapse around the country. Trade had nothing to do with it.

As for the charge that Smoot caused the Depression to spread worldwide: it was too small a change to have plausibly so large an effect. For a start, it only applied to about one-third of America’s trade: about 1.3 percent of GDP. Our average tariff on dutiable goods went from 44.6 to 53.2 percent—not a large jump. Tariffs were higher in almost every year from 1821 to 1914. Our tariff went up in 1861, 1864, 1890, and 1922 without producing global depressions, and the recessions of 1873 and 1893 managed to spread worldwide absent tariff increases.

Now, there will be much sound and fury about the decision by the US to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports (of 25% and 10%, respectively). China, which accounts for 2% of US steel imports, will mostly shrug:

But most analysts said the move was more of an irritant to China than anything serious at this stage.

A glut of steel from China has fueled global oversupply, but Lu Zhengwei, chief economist at Industrial Bank in Shanghai, said China had already been working to cut overcapacity in its steel industry.

Anti-dumping duties imposed by the Obama administration on China two years ago had also helped cut U.S. imports from China and protect a restructured U.S. steel industry based around mini-mills, experts said. Last year, China’s steel exports fell 30 percent […]

The uproar over trade in nineteenth century commodities is drowning out the far more important issue for the US, which is the destruction of the American edge in advanced manufacturing thanks to trade and technology transfers:

America produced every important invention in the digital age, from integrated circuits to semiconductor lasers, solar cells, flat panel displays, sensors and light-emitting diodes. Except for integrate[d] circuits, Asia now produces virtually all the world’s output of these building-blocks of the electronics industry, and China has a crash program underway to become the world’s major producer of semiconductors.

The steel tariff could be just an opening salvo, as the US prepares to take action on high-tech manufacturing. That’s when the sparks would really fly. On the other hand, there are no clear signs that this will actually happen, so we’ll just have to wait and see.