With President Trump’s incredibly foolhardy decision Thursday to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico, and the European Union, the probability grows of an economic crash this fall.
When the likely crash hits (I predict late-October), this nation will be psychologically ill-equipped to handle it. Get ready for rough times.
The crash is likely because both public and private-sector debt levels are too high; assets are overvalued; wage pressure soon will massively increase; young workers are too coddled; petroleum prices are rising; healthcare premium increases will hit with explosive force; Trump’s protectionism is massively harmful; Trump’s diplomacy is too mercurial (and thus more likely to spark a minicrisis that scares investors); and even mildly rising interest rates will spook markets that for 10 years have become accustomed to rates that are unnaturally low.
Combine all those problems with the likelihood of hard-left agitation this fall (the lefties always gin up something), with the predictable overreaction from an adolescent president and the concerns that will grow, among investors, about a possible Nancy Pelosi House speakership — and, voila, it’s a recipe for the sort of sheer panic that makes economies tank.
First, on the tariffs: Few policies could be more counterproductive. Not only will these tariffs hike prices for American consumers and manufacturers, causing far more economic dislocation than they ward off in the “protected” industries, but they also will likely catalyze retaliation by the targeted nations that could badly hurt American farmers, ranchers, textile plants, and consumers.
The Dow Jones’ immediate 200-point drop on Thursday in response to Trump’s announcement was indicative of the damage tariffs will do.
Then there’s the growing debt problem — or, more accurately, the looming debt crisis. Global private and public debt has reached an eye-popping 245 percent of Gross Domestic Product, even before the massive government spending binge recently approved by Congress and Trump has really kicked in. With both government debt and household debt in the U.S. at record levels, and with some wise analysts saying official debt numbers worldwide actually understate the problem, the stage is set for a domino effect of collapsing financial positions if just two or three lenders start calling in their loans.
In the U.S., the Obama administration actually did not tighten home-loan programs to make them less risky, instead keeping money flowing to consumers ever-less ready to actually pay their mortgages. And just last weekend I heard of a program of which few people seem to be aware: the Department of Agriculture requires, in effect, not a single penny of down payment for guaranteed home loans for low-income, rural workers.
Lord forbid what will happen when it’s time to pay the piper.
Meanwhile, fuel prices are rising despite vastly increased American production, both because allied oil nations need higher prices to finance their own debt and because too few refineries and/or pipelines exist to service the increasing demand. Combine those price hikes with yet another economic shock this fall, when healthcare premiums again rise by double digits, and the public will become very, very jittery.
This is a public that isn’t primed for a unifying resilience in the face of hard times. It’s a public whose only taste of economic doldrums, the 2008-09 financial “crisis,” was child’s play compared to the economic crises of the 1970s and early 1980s, not to mention the 1930s. It’s a public more bitterly divided in political and social outlook than ever before, with identity politics and tribalism increasingly dominating the public square. Alas, with young workers increasingly feeling entitled to benefits divorced from actual work, and to blaming lack of success on racism, other bigotry, or institutional unfairness, it is likely that the response to widespread hardship will be more divisive finger-pointing, rather than shoulder-to-the-wheel, all-in-this-together hardiness.
Therefore, if things begin going badly, the troubles are more likely to cascade than to be mitigated by what once was an American work ethic buttressed by strong cultural institutions.
(Related: Trump to slap Canada, Mexico, EU with new aluminum, steel tariffs: Report
Canada hits back at U.S. with threat of $12.8 billion in tariffs
Europe threatens tariffs on $7.5 billion of US goods)
The question then arises whether this dystopia can be avoided. I don’t know. Congress and Trump could forestall future premium increases by actually passing a plan to replace Obamacare (Right now, unfortunately, that effort looks unlikely to overcome Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s, R-Ky., negativity.) I believe markets can be reassured about debt levels, at least temporarily, if Congress passes a rescissions package Trump wisely has requested. I hope Trump can be persuaded to halt the trade wars he has begun. And we all should hope this president neither causes nor exacerbates some diplomatic crisis.
Yet without most of those things happening, we’re in for trouble. Buy gold, hoard cash, and stock up on good canned foods.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner, and is the author of Mad Jones, Heretic, a satirical literary novel published in the fall of 2017.