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ian mcgugan

A worker saws metal amid construction of a convention centre in Denver on Nov. 3, 2017.Rick Wilking

Donald Trump has picked up a loaded revolver. What he doesn't appear to realize is that he's aiming it at his own head.

The tariffs he is threatening to impose against imported steel and aluminum are likely to cause just as much pain for U.S. companies, U.S. workers and U.S. investors as the international trading partners that Mr. Trump thinks he's targeting.

For now, the U.S. President seems to be ignoring this irony. But even the famously fact-shy Mr. Trump can't escape it forever.

From a U.S. perspective, the most immediate and obvious issue with the President's proposed tariffs is that they would result in higher prices for the key industrial metals needed by U.S. manufacturers. In effect, Mr. Trump's hissy fit on trade would help about 140,000 Americans employed in steel mills, while hurting the roughly 6.5 million Americans who work in steel-consuming industries.

That's not a great trade-off.

Brian Mulroney says Donald Trump’s planned steel and aluminum tariffs are “dangerous,” but adds the Liberal government has handled the issue well. The former prime minister spoke at an event for his daughter, Caroline Mulroney.

The Canadian Press

Higher prices for steel and aluminum within the United States could also set off a wider reaction in financial markets by raising the cost of U.S. consumer goods and stoking inflation. The Federal Reserve would then have to respond by raising interest rates, which would hurt both U.S. stocks and bonds.

"I believe these tariffs on their own will push inflation higher, and higher inflation is a threat to the valuations of more or less all financial assets today," said Ben Inker, head of the asset allocation team at money manager GMO LLC in Boston.

Of course, the biggest danger of all is the spectre of international retaliation.

Europe and China, as well as Canada, would almost certainly respond with their own tariffs on some U.S.-made goods if Mr. Trump forges ahead with his levies. As a result, U.S. exporters would face new headwinds to selling their products internationally and many U.S. companies would be forced to re-engineer global supply chains they have spent years building. At the very least, they would face pervasive uncertainty about where to locate their operations.

No wonder, then, that many experts are appalled by Mr. Trump's pledge to get tough on trade. "This is just straight up stupid," Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington told CNBC. For his part, Mr. Inker warned that a global trade war could lead to an inflationary outburst that would knock up to 40 per cent off the value of a typical investment portfolio.

So what are the odds of Mr. Trump backtracking on his ill-conceived notion? That probably hinges on how effective the threat of tariffs proves to be as a negotiating tool.

The Trump trade strategy is all about being the biggest bully on the block, Mr. Posen notes, and the U.S. President is already using the threat of tariffs as a cudgel. On Monday, for instance, Mr. Trump warned there would be no break for Canada on the proposed levies unless it agreed to a revised North American free-trade agreement that would be "fair" to U.S. interests.

The problem with this tough-as-nails strategy from a U.S. perspective is it may be met with a shrug in many of the places that Mr. Trump most wants to target.

China, for instance, is the country that runs the largest trade surplus, by far, with the United States, but it's unlikely to be severely inconvenienced by the proposed tariffs. Rather than trying to expand its metals production, it's actually closing down many of its creakier steel and aluminum factories as part of a blue-skies policy designed to create cleaner air.

Europe, too, isn't going to feel much pain. Transatlantic trade in metals is very small, according to Capital Economics, which calculates that exports of "basic metals" to the United States account for less than 0.1 per cent of the euro zone economy.

If many of his negotiating partners refuse to be intimidated by his bluster, Mr. Trump is going to be left in an awkward place. He would then have to choose between backing down or going ahead with tariffs that are likely to be just as inconvenient for the United States as for the rest of the world.

For now, stock markets appear to be counting on him coming to his senses. Let's hope they're right.

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