U.S. Treasury chief dashes hopes for broad tariff cut to fight coronavirus

By David Lawder and Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is not considering broad relief from import tariffs on Chinese goods to ease economic pain from the coronavirus, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday, dashing the hopes of industry and some lawmakers.

President Donald Trump, however, would likely consider some specific exemptions to aid small businesses hurt by the virus, Mnuchin said on CNBC and to reporters at the White House.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was “looking at additional exemptions for companies that are particularly hit and have issues with the virus,” Mnuchin said. “To the extent that there are company-specific issues, we will address that with the president and react accordingly.”

Anti-tariff forces both outside and inside the government see the virus crisis as their biggest opportunity for rolling back at least some import taxes since a U.S.-China “Phase 1” trade deal was reached in December.

Tariffs of up to 25% remain on some $370 billion worth of Chinese goods imported annually. U.S. importers were billed for $48.1 billion in duties on Chinese goods from the Trump administration’s “Section 301” tariffs over the past 20 months, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“This is a tax that is fully within the authorities of the executive branch, so they can very quickly give American businesses and American consumers a tax cut by lifting the tariffs that are in place,” U.S. Representative Stephanie Murphy told Reuters on Thursday.

The Florida Democrat urged Lighthizer on Wednesday to declare a trade “detente” by removing tariffs on both Chinese and European goods to aid small and medium-sized businesses.

Lighthizer, who for three years has led the Trump administration’s efforts to impose tariffs on Chinese goods, “was not receptive to the idea” during a closed-door meeting with members of the House Ways and Means Committee, Murphy said.

USTR did not respond to a request for comment.

The agency on Thursday night granted exclusions https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/enforcement/301Investigations/%24300_Billion_Exclusions_Granted_March_2020.pdf for 19 medical products from China, including face masks, stethoscope covers and blood pressure cuffs, the second such action in the past week.

The U.S.-China Business Council is also pressing for tariff reductions by both China and the United States as a way to help the world’s two largest economies weather coronavirus pressures.

“Both economies are suffering from a common challenge,” said USCBC President Craig Allen. “Both sides should use this as an opportunity to rein in the self-inflicted damage that tariffs cause.”

But there are differing views on tariffs within the Trump administration, Allen said, with “no clear consensus on moving forward with a tariff reduction no matter how obvious it may be that it’s in both countries’ interest.”

ELECTION LOOMS

Trump has touted his tough stance on China trade as a key differentiator from Democratic challengers in the November presidential election. Keeping tariffs in place on Chinese goods allows him to say he is maintaining leverage over China for a Phase 2 trade deal.

But rapidly deteriorating financial markets and worries that COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, will grind worldwide economic activity to a halt may be changing some trade thinking inside the administration, said a person familiar with White House trade deliberations.

“It’s not likely to happen” because of the election argument, the person said. “But COVID has changed a lot of things and industry sees an opening here.”

Before the coronavirus significantly reduced its global forecasts, the International Monetary Fund had estimated that U.S. and Chinese tariffs still in place after a Phase 1 trade deal would reduce 2020 global economic output by about 0.5%, or around $450 billion.

“Suspending the tariffs would generate immediate economic savings for American consumers and be a goodwill gesture to China and other trading partners suffering from the economic effects of COVID-19,” The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote in an editorial on Friday.

The National Association of Manufacturers on Monday published a coronavirus action plan that urged the administration to “develop a targeted list of products for which Section 301 tariffs and retaliatory tariffs can be suspended or removed to spur economic growth and job creation.”

Derek Scissors, a China policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute who has advised the administration in the past, said Mnuchin still favors broader tariff relief as a way to boost economic growth.

“The Wall Street representatives in and out of the administration constantly push for tariff cuts, from the time the deal was struck through last week,” Scissors said. “The risk of a trade deficit jump later in the year, as the China tries to export its way to a V-shaped recovery, has blocked them.”

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, the administration’s loudest anti-China voice, denied that tariffs might be lifted.

“There are no discussions within the White House about that. That is simply a fake news gambit by the usual Wall Street suspects who never met an American job they didn’t want to offshore for the sake of a buck,” he said.

Even economists who support lifting tariffs say it may not be effective as a short-term stimulus.

“Permanently lifting the tariffs on China is a good idea,” said Heritage Foundation economist Paul Winfree. “Rapid changes in trade policy linked specifically to the pandemic might not give them the bump they want because it will contribute to the long-run trade uncertainty that has depressed growth.”

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell and Dan Grebler)

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