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The Retired Investor: Tariffs Can Only Do So Much

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Tariffs in America have been used to accomplish specific goals throughout history. Until the Civil War, tariffs were a revenue generator for the government. After the Civil War, they were used to protect U.S. industries and during the Great Depression, tariffs evolved as a negotiating tool between nations, especially after World War II.
 
In the postwar years, tariffs built stronger trade relations between nations. Reciprocity rather than protectionism or revenue was the guiding principle behind our trade negotiations with other countries and economic regions. That idea still holds sway under certain circumstances, but tariffs have become an offensive policy tool as well.
 
I remain convinced that tariffs are simply another tax that corporations and consumers pay to finance the policy goals of the government. Many may believe that tariffs are worth the price if it means more jobs for Americans but that has not been the case. The overall loss of jobs because of tariffs far outweighs the gains in tariff-protected industries, especially in a situation where retaliatory tariffs are levied on the U.S.  
 
Tariffs in today's world are being used by both political parties to accomplish an even greater spectrum of goals than simply job protection. Under the former administration, tariffs were both a weapon to help revive the domestic manufacturing sector as well as to reduce American dependence on China in a variety of economic sectors.
 
Since then, under President Biden, the goals of tariffs have been broadened further to include national security, and self-sufficiency, and to support our efforts in the green energy transition.
 
His approach is better, he claims, because it is targeted and selective. It also involves convincing allies to join him to coordinate tariffs on Chinese goods.  He argues his tariffs on foreign electric vehicles and solar panels allow our U.S. producers to gain a foothold in this area. The restrictions on semiconductor imports are both an attempt to build up the country's self-sufficiency in an area that is important to both military defense and increase made-in-America manufacturing in areas such as artificial intelligence. He has also restricted what U.S. industries can sell to China, especially in the technology sector.
 
 Former President Trump has doubled down on his first-term tariffs. He has advanced ideas that would include a new 60 percent tariff on all Chinese imports, plus a 10 percent across-the-board tariff on imports from around the world. He has also reached back into America's past when tariffs were revenue generators. His idea is to use tariff revenue to replace the income tax.
 
I do applaud him for a novel idea. However, it would require a huge increase in tariffs to accomplish such a feat. To put this into perspective, when tariffs were the main source of government revenues, federal spending was about 2 percent of GDP. Today that number is 23 percent. Total individual income generates more than $2.2 trillion in federal revenues while total import revenues are less than $100 billion. The required increase in tariffs would stifle trade and likely precipitate a worldwide recession.
 
I also suspect that Trump may be using the threat of higher across-the-board tariffs to exact concessions from both China as well as the rest of the world. He has done it before and could do it again and our trading partners know it.
 
In any case, all these tariff efforts by both parties are playing well with American voters whether Republican, Democrat, or independents. It appears that few care that we are already paying $230 billion in tariff-related price increases. A further 60 percent tariff on Chinese goods would increase prices by another $230 billion.
 
On an individual level, the Peterson Institute for International Economics calculates if Trump carried through on his promises the average middle-income family would pay $1,700 a year in higher prices on top of the $1,000 per annum they are already paying.
 
I don't think Preside Biden's tariff schemes are any better despite his selective approach. However, what I think isn't important. It is up to an informed electorate to decide if tariffs are the way to go.
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

The Retired Investor: Tariffs Are Simply Another Form of Taxation

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
In this era of populism, tariffs have become as American as apple pie. Politicians are bending over backward to out-tariff their rivals. Voters are applauding the effort, and yet it is the consumer who will pay higher prices as a result.
 
I can understand how voters might disagree, given that party politicians continue to deny the obvious. "The notion that tariffs are a tax on U.S. consumers is a lie pushed by outsources and the Chinese Communist Party," declared a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. 
 
I am neither an outsourcer nor a Chinese Communist, but I am convinced that tariffs are a tax on all of us.
 
When the U.S. levies a tariff on an imported good, the cost of the tariff comes directly out of the bank account of an American importer when the foreign-made product arrives at an American port. The importer then has a choice. It can either eat the cost or pass all or some of that added expense to the buyer of the imported goods. That buyer can be either a retailer or a consumer. How much of the extra cost is absorbed by the retailer and how much is paid by the consumer is hard to determine.
 
Historically, U.S. tariffs have been around since the days we declared independence. Tariffs generated most of the country's revenues and at one point represented 90 percent of federal revenues. That began to change when the Industrial Revolution took hold in the U.S. during the Civil War.
 
Tariffs were then levied to protect American industry, chiefly northern manufacturers from overseas imports. The Republican Party slapped tariffs on various goods from several countries in Europe and elsewhere. This period reached its zenith during the Great Depression when world economies were failing. Tariff wars exploded globally as countries rushed to protect industries within their borders.
 
Instead, these tariffs resulted in even less global growth and only worsened the state of the world's economies.
 
It was the passage of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act in 1934 that introduced the concept of reciprocity that began to reverse the global decline. The act allowed the president to horse trade on a global basis by negotiating lower duties if other nations did the same. After WWII, reciprocity became the dominant go-to trade policy. Over the ensuing decades, trade deals expanded from a country-to-country agreement to regional trade alliances that granted "free trade" to some while targeting duties and tariffs on others. The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement is just one example of this practice.
 
After multiple decades, this era came to an abrupt halt when former president Donald Trump initiated a wave of tariffs on a variety of goods on China. He promised that the tariffs would level the playing field between the two countries, while bringing manufacturing jobs back home. He soon expanded his tariff offensive by placing tariffs on additional products and at the same time applying them to several additional countries.
 
His successor, Joe Biden, not only let stand the China tariffs but added to them. The costs to American consumers and companies not only increased as a result, but the jobs promised never materialized. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimates that Americans have paid more than $230 billion to date for tariffs that Trump imposed, and Biden extended.
 
A bipartisan working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the tariffs had no impact on the number of jobs in the affected industries. However, the tariffs did result in other countries imposing their retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products. That not only hurt consumers here at home but made the goods we exported abroad more expensive. In addition, those retaliatory tariffs lowered the number of jobs within the U.S. industries that were impacted.
 
The Chinese retaliatory 25 percent tariffs on U.S. cotton, soybean, and sorghum devastated large numbers of our farmers. The situation was so bad that the Trump Administration was forced to offset the damage by offering farmers $23 billion in taxpayer money.
 
J.P. Morgan economists estimated that the Trump tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese-made goods cost the average American household about $1,000 per year. We are still paying more today for a variety of imported goods from China including MAGA baseball caps, luggage, and shoes.
 
Next week, I will discuss the present effort to expand trade barriers and tariffs as a policy tool that is being used to advance several separate goals. Each of these tariff initiatives has serious ramifications for both American industry and consumers.
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

The Retired Investor: Key to America's Future Lies in Its Past

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
This is year three of a 15-year period where change will occur throughout America. It won't be an easy time for any of us. Stress, conflict, dissatisfaction, economic and political turmoil. It all lies ahead, but there is a silver lining.
 
In the case of regime change fueled by populism, American history may not repeat itself, but it does come damn close. Throughout our history, we have seen the pendulum swing from right to left and back again as discontent and bad times (the absence of fairness, equality, and equity) alternated with boom times and capitalism (winner-take-all mentality).
 
The only time the pendulum broke down was during the Civil War and it could again if compromise gives way. You probably never heard of the Wide Awake Movement. It was a grassroots anti-slavery movement that had its birth in Hartford, Conn., in February of 1860. The movement spread rapidly.
 
By the end of that summer, there were a half-million uniformed members under arms protesting slavery in a nation of 31 million. In response, those who disagreed with that stance formed armed groups of their own. They also numbered in the hundreds of thousands with names like the Minutemen and the National Volunteers. Americans on both sides failed to compromise, to see the other side's point of view. The pendulum had swung too far, so the system broke down.
 
In 1891, the People's Party was founded as America's farmers had had enough. It represented a populist agrarian movement that pitted a growing number of the nation's landless tenant farmers against the Eastern establishment and banking elite. That finally wound down by 1908 after much-needed reforms.
 
Fast forward to the Great Depression, millions of Americans out of work, and the rise of the labor union. That period encompassed almost 15 years. Then came the Vietnam Era along with a boatload of grievances from many segments of the population. Is any of this getting through to you? Populism is, and always has been, part of this nation's fabric.
 
Each of these periods represents a regime change of about 15 years. Why so long? It requires a huge effort, and a great deal of time to move the pendulum to the middle and even more to swing to the other side. It does not occur without crisis (real or imagined), and conflict. All the regime changes I have examined are filled with them. Economics and politics both play their part.
 
Why, might you ask, are conflicts necessary? Conflicts make people realize that "something must be done." Conflicts are necessary to move the pendulum. History is rife with examples. It required a Civil War to end slavery. World War II to finally pull us out of the Great Depression and confront the horrors of the Nazi's extermination of millions. The Vietnam War to recognize a new generation. But make no mistake, a shooting war-type conflict has not always been necessary to effect change here at home.
 
 Domestic conflicts were also plentiful — and just as traumatic. The suppression of labor unions by businesses and the nation's police forces in the 1930s comes to mind. Some of us remember the 1960s. I lived through Kent State and other student demonstrations, marches for racial equality, the burning of Watts, assassinations (the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, etc.), and much more. All of the above created a crisis and triggered change.
 
 Economics has always played a major part in populism. In the post-Civil War era, the decimation of the southern agrarian economies was a wrenching blow to a large swath of the nation's population. In the 1930s, we suffered through thousands of bank failures, drought, historical unemployment, tariffs, and the rise of communism and Nazi Socialism, which threatened capitalism and free markets. The regime change that occurred from the mid-1960s to the 1970s culminated in a period of skyrocketing interest rates, inflation, and gas lines at the pump.
 
The response to my columns thus far on populism has been heart-warming. Thank you, readers, for your interest and continued encouragement. Next week, I will conclude this series with a glimpse of what we can expect in the years ahead, at least from a financial and economic perspective.
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

The Retired Investor: Why Protectionism Is a Close Cousin to Populism

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
The number one issue on voter's minds in this election year is immigration. That may come as a surprise to some, but it makes a lot of sense if one believes that we have entered a period of populism.
 
Sixty-two percent of registered voters nationwide support a program to "deport all undocumented immigrants," according to a CBS News poll over the weekend. On June 3, 2024, President Biden signed an executive order that would ban migrants who cross the southern border illegally from claiming asylum to defuse this election issue. Faith-based charities, like Catholic Charities, which have a long history of providing shelter, food, and clothing to migrant families are targeted by anti-immigration activists. What has all this immigration anger have to do with American populism?
 
By now readers should be aware (if you have been reading my last three columns) that over the last 40 years middle- and lower-income Americans have seen their livelihoods dwindle because of government policies that favored a top-down approach to economic growth and fiscal spending. The flow of money from both the Federal Reserve Bank and the trillions of dollars in government spending has largely found its way overseas in a variety of forms. "Go forth and conquer the world" was the mantra our nation's leaders espoused pointing to the benefits of international free trade.
 
Every effort was made to encourage, expand, and at times, protect our overseas markets. Think of government contractors across a wide spectrum of U.S. industries importing goods and services from cheap overseas companies or their foreign subsidiaries. I have already written about the long-term trend by U.S. corporations to invest in plants and equipment in various countries.
 
U.S. companies have routinely imported basic materials from around the world to build our outdated infrastructure and still do. We must also add in the trillions of dollars in U.S. funding of dozens of foreign governments, while also supporting our troops in various conflicts abroad over the last couple of decades.
 
Here at home, as good-paying jobs disappeared, many younger Americans found that even their high-priced college educations might only qualify them for a minimum-wage job at a fast-food restaurant. Unlike in past generations, where only one spouse needed to work, now two were necessary, and even then it was not always enough to put bread on the table. Many jobs don't even cover child-care expenses.
 
Back in the day, they called America "the Sleeping Giant." Given the trends, it was only a matter of time before a large portion of the country woke up and asked the obvious question.
 
 "What about me?"
 
It is not the first time in our history we have asked that question. There have been many populist periods where economic or political dissatisfaction has translated into protests of immigrants and foreign influences in the form of protectionism. Protectionism is a policy of restricting imports from other countries through tariffs on imported goods, and quotas. and a variety of other government regulations that restrict the free flow of goods and services between countries.
 
Back in the 1930s, for example, during the Great Depression, as millions of workers lost their jobs, and populism surfaced, higher trade barriers were put in place. Those tariffs not only exacerbated the severity of the downturn but also worked to choke off any recovery.
 
This latest period of populism/protectionism found its voice through the ideas of MAGA. The Trump administration built walls along the Mexican border, levied tariffs on China and other countries, threatened to pull out of NATO, and provided a steady stream of anti-foreign rhetoric that was music to the ears of many Americans.
 
But like the 1930s, none of these policies worked. It only led to dislocation, losses for American farmers and other workers, and higher prices for consumers. Nonetheless, many Americans not only applauded these efforts but also supported even higher tariffs and more restrictions and deportations of immigrants.
 
The connection between protectionism and immigration is straightforward. Barriers to admitting immigrants are simply a tariff on another type of imported good and service that is entering the country — labor, both legal and illegal. The difference is that, unlike a tariff on Chinese semiconductors, an immigrant is someone who can be identified as such and is far easier to vilify. Immigrants become the embodiment of all that is wrong with globalization.
 
Making matters worse, thanks to COVID-19 and the failed economic policies and shortcomings of some governments, the refugees' rush to flee to the freedom and economic promise of the U.S. became irresistible. As such, we are assaulted through the news media with the spectacle of huge waves of immigrants at our borders, climbing fences, wading rivers, and dying in deserts. Unfortunately, they are also a visual reminder to all those generational Americans who have been left out of that economic promise, who see them only as a danger to our society and to job security.
 
Only now, thanks to the match lit by Donald Trump's oratory over the past several years, have politicians and corporations, begun to realize that the 40-year top-down, globalization trends that benefited a small segment of society have run into a brick wall of anger, resentment, and demand for change — or else.
 
Those who read my two-part column on immigration in March "Immigrants are getting a bad rap on the economic front," understand that immigrants have contributed far more than they have taken from the U.S. economy in recent years. In fact, throughout our history that has proven to be true.
 
But facts have never carried much weight in a season of discontent. As many who have tried reason in the face of conspiracy theories know, spouting facts in the face of this populist sentiment is a useless endeavor. 
 
The U.S. is not alone in using immigration as the favored whipping boy in an era of populism. In European elections last week, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy saw large advances by political parties that oppose immigration. The trend toward protectionism and de-globalization is gathering steam in Asia and Latin America as well.  Next week, I will examine similar times in our past when populism flourished. How long these regime changes normally last, what lessons we have learned, and why the coming crisis period we will encounter could usher in a change for the better over time.    
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

The Retired Investor: How Top-Down Economic Policies Pushed Country Over the Edge

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
The Federal Reserve Bank's smoothing of the business cycle, which started in the 1990s, was meant to ensure price stability and the health of the labor market. It's top-down policies of reducing interest rates through the banking system and into the hands of the largest corporations was meant to benefit the whole economy.
 
The problem is that corporations and the minority of Americans that control them are not the whole economy. What did that matter, argued supply-side economists. This group, who championed Reaganomics in the 1980s and beyond, assured us that the benefits of the Federal Reserve Bank's policies would ‘trickle-down' throughout the entirety of U.S. society over time. They said the same thing about corporate tax cuts. Those assurances never materialized. Why? Times had changed, and neither the government nor the Fed realized their mistake.
 
As profit-seeking organizations, corporations do not seek to be fair, equitable, or distribute justice. They ignore that side of the pendulum swing (as they should). Corporations simply seek to reduce costs and expand revenues. If they are good at doing so, more and more profits are generated for themselves and their shareholders.
 
In the 1990s, and especially after the turn of this century, U.S. companies and their owners realized that by investing overseas where labor and taxes were much lower, they could reduce costs, widen profitability, and open new markets for their products. As a bonus, it could also help them to compete in an increasingly global marketplace with larger and larger companies.
 
In the ensuing years, U.S. jobs and industries were exported overseas leaving entire regional industries rusting into decay. It also drastically reduced the size of the great American middle class, which had acted as a buffer between the haves and have-nots within society. It also made any semblance of 'trickle-down' economics a sad joke. There was nothing fair or equitable about this trend and yet our politicians applauded the outcome. We were winning the market share war in China. And all it cost was money and giving them our greatest corporate trade and technology secrets.  After all, both parties' politicians reasoned, who doesn't want cheaper T-shirts (for those who could buy them) at Walmart?
 
In my Nov. 8, 2012, column "The Incredibly Shrinking Middle Classhttps://tinyl.io/Av8y" I wrote "Last month the Census Bureau found that the highest-earning 20 percent of households earned 51.1 percent of all income last year. That is the biggest share on record since 1967. The share earned by middle-income households fell to 14.3 percent, a record low. From 1979 to 2007, the incomes of the richest one percent of Americans soared 275 percent. That same 1 percent earned 23.5 percent of all income, the largest share since 1928. At that rate, the rich are 288 times richer than you the middle class."
 
At the same time, with the additional corporate profits rolling in, company managements invested in technology, especially labor-saving technology, that further reduced the need for human capital.  Companies got bigger, owners became billionaires, the stock market boomed, and those with enough money to invest (mostly Baby Boomers), were paid off in escalating stock prices, buybacks, and extra dividends. As for the bottom half of society, "Let them eat cake."
 
Today, income inequality is a worldwide phenomenon where the richest one percent own half the world's wealth, while the poorest half of the world own just 0.75 percent. Here at home, the bottom segment of American society has been suffering through the worst period of income inequality in American history, far higher than during America's colonial period.
 
In a column I wrote entitled "The Next Third World Nation" back in 2010, I asked this question, "What do Cote d'Ivoire, Uruguay and the United States have in common? Answer: all three nations have about the same level of income inequality. America now ranks lowest of all developed nations in terms of its income distribution." It has declined further over the ensuing 14 years.
 
It is no coincidence that the rise in populism here in the U.S. began about the same time. There was a gathering sense that the real people in this country were under attack by money-grubbing elites, many of whom were thought to be liberal or represent liberal-minded institutions. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Republican Tea Party were early warning signs of the discontent that has now bubbled over among many Americans in the form of today's populism. 
 
Unfortunately, the same trickle-down mentality and government policies that created this inequality continue today. Trump, if elected, offers tax cuts for the wealthy. Biden is funneling billions into corporations as you read this.
 
Who suffers the most from the Fed's higher interest rate policies? The credit card holders, the family purchasing a used car, the first-time home buyer; that's who. Ask yourself who benefited the most from the trillions of dollars in spending over the last decade under the last two administrations. 
 
In my next column, I will tackle the issue of protectionism, which I believe is the cousin of today's populism, as well as the similarities and differences between the crisis we will face over the next decade and those of similar times in our nation's past. 
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     
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