Wall Street is overreacting to the tariff news, Barclays economists say

Key Points
  • As long as the Trump administration's steel and aluminum tariffs don't trigger a trade war, impacts will be minimal, Barclays Research said.
  • The administration announced long-awaited plans Thursday to impose 10 percent tariffs on aluminum imports and 25 percent on steel imports.
  • Wall Street didn't take the news well, as major stock market averages tumbled on the news.
Markets fear trade war, which could bring inflation: Pro

As long as the Trump administration's steel and aluminum tariffs do not trigger an all-out trade war, the economic impacts will be minimal, according to an analysis by Barclays Research.

On their face, the added levies would boost inflation measures by one-tenth of a percentage point while reducing annual GDP growth by one or two tenths, Barclays said in a note that assumes the moves would not have massive repercussions from U.S. trading partners.

The administration announced plans to impose 10 percent tariffs on aluminum imports and 25 percent on steel imports. Century Aluminum CEO Michael Bless told CNBC the tariffs would bring back jobs lost to foreign competitors, though economists fear that they will cost industries that use the less expensive imports.

Barclays reasons that the effects will be largely contained because steel and aluminum amount to just 2 percent of total imports, and thus won't drive prices appreciably higher or crimp broader economic growth.

"We expect the direct economic effects of anti-trade policies in these industries to be limited, given their small share in total goods imports," the bank said in a note. "Meanwhile, any inflationary impulse from higher tariffs depends on whether firms view the increase as permanent and if the current state of the business cycle would contribute to a high pass-through rate from tariffs to final goods."

Of course, the broader geopolitical ramifications of the moves remain to be seen. Economists and analysts have worried over what would happen should President Donald Trump follow through on protectionist rhetoric he issued during the 2016 election campaign.

Andrew Hunter, U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said the tariffs could provide another boost to steel prices that already have risen 20 percent this year while stretching labor and material shortages in the industry.

"We suspect that the hit to other industries from higher prices will outweigh any boost to
domestic steel and aluminum producers, particularly when that boost may not be very large," Hunter said in a note.

However, he also noted that the direct negative impact also "may not be that large."

Wall Street didn't take the news well.

Major stock market averages tumbled on the news, with the Dow industrials losing as much as 550 points. Government bond yields fell, and the U.S. dollar surrendered earlier gains.

The Barclays analysis asserts that the market overreacted.

Economists Michael Gapen and Pooja Sriram noted that the tariffs come as the U.S. economy is otherwise in expansion mode, with aggressive fiscal policy — tax cuts and planned spending increases, specifically — to "provide sufficient support to keep the economy in a recovery phase."

The economists did note that the report assumes little broader fallout.

"While any direct effects of remedial trade measures on steel and aluminum are likely to be limited, the risk to the outlook lies in the response of US trading partners and whether the administration's decision to impose restrictive trade policies is only the first in a series of moves," they wrote.

Barclays also said that the analysis did include an assumption that the tariffs could "significantly widen" the $50.5 billion trade deficit, possibly prompting another round of tariffs.