Auto tariff war would hurt more than U.S.-China fight: IMF chief economist

International Monetary Fund chief economist Gita Gopinath

A new trade war sparked by U.S. automotive tariffs has the potential to do much more damage to global economic growth than the U.S.-China trade conflict has done, International Monetary Fund chief economist Gita Gopinath has said.

Gopinath told Reuters in an interview that such a conflict would affect exports from many more countries and impose retaliatory duties on U.S. goods from numerous trading partners.

“We are concerned about what auto tariffs would do to the global economy at a time when we are more in the recovery phase,” Gopinath said on the sidelines of the IMF and World Bank annual meetings in Washington.

Should trade conflicts spill over into the automotive sector, it would also disrupt larger parts of global manufacturing supply chains, she said.

“So that would actually be far more costly for the world economy than just the U.S.-China trade tensions that we had,” said Gopinath, an Indian-born, Harvard University professor.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to levy tariffs of some 25 percent on imported vehicles and auto parts on national security grounds, invoking a 1962 trade law aimed at safeguarding the Cold War-era military industrial base.

Trump has openly admitted that he is using the threat of auto tariffs to draw trading partners including Japan and the European Union into trade negotiations. But he also has recently threatened to impose car duties on Mexico unless it improves security at the U.S. border.

The Commerce Department has submitted recommendations of its “Section 232” study into whether automotive imports constitute a threat to national security to the White House but has not revealed its contents. Under the Section 232 provision, Trump has until about May 17 to act on any automotive tariff recommendations contained in the report.

Should he impose tariffs, they would hit hard in the second half of 2019, about the time when the IMF is predicting a rebound in global growth due to a pause in interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve and other major central banks.

According to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook released on Tuesday, the growth rebound is set to continue into 2020, but the Fund has warned that the outlook was “precarious” and vulnerable to numerous risks.

Gopinath said trade was the biggest among these risks, which also include rising corporate and sovereign debt, stresses in some large emerging markets and a chaotic exit of Britain from the European Union.