Up until now, the muted financial market response to Trump’s protectionism agenda has been explained by three beliefs: that he doesn’t really mean what he says and is using tariffs as a negotiating tool; that even if he does mean it, cooler heads in Washington will prevail; and that sooner or later the deleterious results of the trade policy will become so obvious that the president will think again.
Over the past few weeks, it has become harder to believe that Trump is simply bluffing. Moreover, the group in Washington making the case for free trade appears to be dwindling in both numbers and influence. The people bending the president’s ear on trade are quite as committed to an America first approach as he is.
That suggests that the world will have to wait for Trump to look at the incoming economic data and realise that trade wars are not as easy to win as he thinks. It could, though, be some time before the penny drops. Exports are booming and on some estimates will add a full percentage point to growth in the second quarter of 2018, a period when the US was expanding at an annual rate of around 4%. That will allow Trump to argue that his tough approach to trade is paying off.