“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store” – Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford
Shortly following Donald Trump’s election victory we penned a piece entitled Hoover’s Folly. In light of Trump’s introduction of tariffs on steel and other selected imports, we thought it wise to recap some of the key points made in that article and provide additional guidance.
While the media seems to treat Trump’s recent demands for tariffs as a hollow negotiating stance, investors are best advised to pay attention. At stake are not just more favorable trade terms on a few select products and possibly manufacturing jobs but the platform on which the global economic regime has operated for the last 50 years. So far it is unclear whether Trump’s rising intensity is political rhetoric or seriously foretelling actions that will bring meaningful change to the way the global economy works. Either as a direct result of policy and/or uncharacteristic retaliation to strong words, abrupt changes to trade, and therefore the role of the U.S. Dollar as the world’s reserve currency, has the potential to generate major shocks in the financial markets.
The following paragraphs are selected from Hoover’s Folly to provide a background.
In 1930, Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act into law. As the world entered the early phases of the Great Depression, the measure was intended to protect American jobs and farmers. Ignoring warnings from global trade partners, the new law placed tariffs on goods imported into the U.S. which resulted in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods exported to other countries. By 1934, U.S. imports and exports were reduced by more than 50% and many Great Depression scholars have blamed the tariffs for playing a substantial role in amplifying the scope and duration of the Great Depression. The United States paid a steep price for trying to protect its workforce through short-sighted political expedience.
Although it remains unclear which approach the Trump trade team will take, much less what they will accomplish, we are quite certain they will make waves. The U.S. equity markets have been bullish on the outlook for the new administration given its business-friendly posture toward tax and regulatory reform, but they have turned a blind eye toward possible negative side effects of any of his plans. Global trade and supply chain interdependencies have been a tailwind for corporate earnings for decades. Abrupt changes in those dynamics represent a meaningful shift in the trajectory of global growth, and the equity markets will eventually be required to deal with the uncertainties that will accompany those changes.
From an investment standpoint, this would have many effects. First, commodities priced in dollars would likely benefit, especially precious metals. Secondly, without the need to hold as many U.S. dollars in reserve, foreign nations might sell their Treasury securities holdings. Further adding pressure to U.S. Treasury securities and all fixed income securities, a weakening dollar is inflationary on the margin, which brings consideration of the Federal Reserve and monetary policy into play.