How Have the Apparel Trade Flows Reacted to the Section 301 Tariff Action against China?

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  • Apparel products are not subject to the Section 301 tariff yet. Neither the $34 billion product list (subject to the 25% additional tariff rate since July 6, 2018) nor the newly proposed $200 billion product list covers wearing apparel (HS Chapters 61 and 62). The current tariff rates will remain unchanged for now.
  • Nevertheless, the Section 301 tariff action has created huge market uncertainties for U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers. Uncertainty hurts business.
  • Seasonally adjusted data shows that between January-May 2018, the total U.S. apparel imports increased by 1.5 percent in volume and 2.5 percent in value year on year—largely due to the improved U.S. economy which creates more import demand. However, over the same period, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China decreased by 1.2 percent in volume and 2.5 percent in value year on year.

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  • After all, cost concern does NOT seem to be the most influential factor that drives companies to source less from China. The average unit price of U.S. apparel imports from China dropped from $2.5/SME in 2016, $2.38/SME in 2017 to $2.32/SME in the first five months of 2018.

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  • In response to the market uncertainty, US importers have already started to accelerate diversifying their sourcing base. Interesting enough, while China’s share in the U.S. apparel import market is declining, there is no single alternative to “Made in China.” Notably, the market shares of Vietnam, Bangladesh, NAFTA and CAFTA only marginally increased in 2018 compared with a year ago. Again, companies’ immediate strategy is to diversify sourcing.
  • In the short run, the volume of US textile and apparel imports from China is likely to go up since US importers are eager to complete their sourcing orders before the tariff hit. If the market uncertainty lasts, the real negative impact will be reflected in the trade data later this year or next year. Usually, companies place sourcing orders several months ahead of the season.
  • Last but not least, the Section 301 action is driven by politics. It is insufficient to just calculate the economic costs and benefits; the political costs should be considered as well.

Data source: Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), US Department of Commerce

by Sheng Lu

Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

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