Personal Finance

In a trade war, it's consumers who may lose

Key Points
  • A battle between the U.S. and the rest of the world over tariffs could mean higher prices for shoppers later this year.
  • "American families are caught in the middle," says the National Retail Federation's Matthew Shay.
Customers walk with Foot Locker shopping bags on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As trade tensions between the U.S. and the rest of the world escalate, expect to take a hit at the cash register.

“A tit-for-tat trade war has erupted and American families are caught in the middle,” Matthew Shay, the president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, said in a statement. Shay also called tariffs "taxes on consumers."

In the latest clash between Europe and the U.S., the Trump administration announced it would on the European Union, and .

The EU responded to duties on steel and aluminum with retaliatory tariffs on more than $3 billion worth of U.S. goods including playing cards, peanut butter and orange juice.

The president previously approved tariffs on flat-screen televisions, solar panels and some household appliances, like dishwashers and washing machines.

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Trump administration fighting multiple trade battles

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative released a list of products that will be subject to additional tariffs. Here are some of the consumer-related goods on the list:

  • Dishwashers
  • Water filters
  • Parts and accessories of printers
  • Copying machines
  • LEDs for backlighting of LCDs
  • Radio receivers

Trump said on Twitter that "trade must be fair and no longer a one way street" and "in the end it will even out."

But in the meantime, if other countries buy fewer of products from the U.S., like orange juice, because of the higher costs as a result of new tariffs, that may mean more inventory and slower sales for farmers and producers here, which will cost jobs in the long run.

On the flip side, U.S. companies dependent on imported aluminum and steel — say for the production of cars, appliances and canned food or drinks, like soda and beer — will have to absorb the higher costs somehow, which could also mean layoffs or price hikes on finished products down the road, according to Michael Salerno, lead director of global banking at First National Bank of Omaha.

There will be some lag time, Salerno said, as companies grapple with the challenge, but it could translate into “higher prices at the register around the holiday season.”

One estimate puts the effects of this trade conflict at 250,000 in lost jobs and $210 in higher costs for an average family.

A tit-for-tat trade war has erupted and American families are caught in the middle.
Matthew Shay
president and CEO of the National Retail Federation

“At a time where wage growth has been pretty limited, every dollar counts and price inflation means fewer dollars consumers have left to spend somewhere else,” said Greg McBride, the chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com.

Price inflation will also take a toll on consumer confidence, he added, even though Americans now feel more optimistic about their economic prospects than they have in a long time.

“The widespread instance of tariffs is something that could become a headwind to the economy,” McBride said.

The shows that for the first time since Trump took office, the majority of Americans approve of his handling of the economy.

Still, "higher prices for everyday essentials and lost jobs threaten to sap the energy out of the strong U.S. economy just as most Americans are starting to enjoy the benefits of historic tax reform," said the NRF's Shay.

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Key Points
  • If a 20 percent tariff were imposed only on cars imported from the European Union, it would largely affect the luxury market, experts say.
  • If new duties are applied to all imports regardless of their country of origin, a broader swath of sales would be affected.
  • It would take a month or two for higher costs to reach car buyers if new tariffs on imports are implemented.