Trade Policy in the New Administration: President Trump?s Approach to International Trade and Its Effects on The Printing Industry

A major part of any President’s legacy is how they handle foreign affairs. Encompassed within the many aspects of international affairs is trade policy. Trade policy includes how we tax imports and exports, regulations on these imports and exports, as well as agreements made with other countries about how trade will occur. This may not be a hot button issue in the current American political landscape, but these important policies help lay the foundation for our own economy as well as positive relationships with other nations.

When it comes to trade, opinions differ among Americans on how free we should keep the market and whether or not we should work with, and how much we should work with, the international community on trade agreements. While trade policy in general is not as clearly divided along partisan lines as some other issues, one can still observe some general policy differences at the party level. In general, American conservatives are more favorable of free trade and free markets than those that are more liberal. This support of the free market could be seen during the George H.W. Bush administration, which lead the push towards the eventual 1994 signing of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement- a groundbreaking Free Trade Agreement for the United States, Canada and Mexico.

In general, many on the American Left and the Labor Movement are skeptical about extensive free trade agreements and instead adopt Protectionism as a philosophy, being concerned that low barriers to entry for foreign manufacturers allow them to outcompete and harm American production, jobs and the economy. In practice, trade policy in the US has never been quite so clear cut, though, with politicians from Teddy Roosevelt to Donald Trump touting the importance and benefits of Protectionism for the American worker and economy.

President Trump ran a campaign defined by a protectionist philosophy, but since taking office has signaled a less coherent and less strictly protectionist strategy. He has stated a few main objectives regarding trade, all of which fit in with his “America first” approach to policy. The first is to ensure that US businesses in all sectors are able to compete both domestically and internationally. The President also aims to enforce US trade laws to prevent the US market from being distorted by subsidized imports. Many of President Trump’s objectives also include renegotiating or re-evaluating America’s involvement in trade agreements. The President aims to resist efforts by other countries to increase obligations under various trade agreements, as well as update current trade agreements.

Based off these objectives, the Administration has stated four main priorities in terms of trade:

  1. Defend the country’s national sovereignty over trade policy
  2. Strictly enforce US trade laws
  3. Open foreign markets
  4. Negotiate new and better trade deals

The President likely wouldn’t describe himself as strictly protectionist, but he believes that we are getting the shorter end of the stick on international trade deals like NAFTA, and much of what he said during the campaign was protectionist in tone. During the campaign, for example, he criticized companies like Ford for choosing to build cars in Mexico rather than in plants in the United States. In keeping with this logic, he withdrew from the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) soon after arriving in office.  The TPP is an agreement between several countries that border the Pacific Ocean to strengthen economic ties among these countries by reducing tariffs and fostering economic growth. Without US support, the TPP is likely to fail.  

In recent months, President Trump has suggested that trade deficits – when the US imports from more than we export to a specific country — with trading partners worldwide are far too high, naming China during the campaign and onward and most recently Germany. The President has espoused the idea that America can become a manufacturing powerhouse in a global economy as long as the right deals are made. To that point, the Administration has signaled its desire to begin talks with Canada and Mexico to renegotiate NAFTA as soon as this fall.

There have been a few inconsistencies in the President’s policy that have perplexed investors worldwide. International markets are struggling to adapt to an Administration that frequently shifts its tone and policies. Two actions of late have shown the Trump Administration seems to be unpredictable when it comes to trade policy. During the G7 (Group of seven advanced world economies) meeting in May 2017, President Trump considered and signed a G7 pledge to defend against protectionism, baffling some back home as his earlier statements and actions on trade seemed to be purely protectionist.

Uncertainty about the particulars of Trump’s trade policy is likely to continue through the next four to eight years. This uncertainty will make it difficult for printers, suppliers, and industry manufacturers to draw any solid conclusions about choices they should make when importing or exporting goods, even just in the North American market.

The United States’ printing industry’s exports are largely to Canada, the UK, and Mexico. For the first and the last, the probable renegotiation of NAFTA and how that unfolds is going to present some major questions and choices for US based Printing companies that export to and do business in Canada. If tariffs on either end become stricter, it’s possible that smaller companies may be priced out of the Canadian market unless they have the capital to set up production facilities in Canada (as many larger companies already have in order to support capacity and efficiency).

With US participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership effectively ended by the Trump Administration, Printing companies in the US with global ambitions will find it harder to enter the emerging markets in South America and Southeast and west Asia.

The Industry’s largest source of imports is China, another country frequently maligned by President Trump for trade and currency practices. While it’s unlikely that the US would raise tariffs on imports from china to the punitive 40% or more that the President suggested as a candidate, such talk and the possibility of even a mild raise from the current level are a cause for concern for commercial printers in the US.

Even in the absence of clear-cut trade policy, the Trump Administration has made it clear that they intend to upend the status quo of international trade. Withdrawal from the TPP and the planned NAFTA renegotiation have served and will serve this intention, but to date it is also pretty clear that severe changes aside from that are unlikely. Still, there is cause for concern for any printers intending on entering the international market if only because of the unpredictability of Administration policy in this matter. It is too early in the Presidential term to determine if policy will follow a protectionist path in the years to come, or if the Administration will take a more unconventional approach to trade.

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