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A trade war won't rattle the 'white hot' US economy

It will take more than a couple hundred billion dollars in import tariffs to derail the U.S. economy from its current “white hot” streak, said Michelle Girard, chief U.S. economist of the investment bank NatWest Markets.

A “material impact on inflation or growth” in the U.S. remains unlikely in the wake of the latest round of tariffs the Trump administration has said it will impose on Chinese goods, Girard said at Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit on Thursday.

“We’re talking about adding a tenth or two only to the inflation outlook as a result of what’s been defined so far” in terms of products affected by tariffs, Girard said.

The Trump administration announced earlier this week that tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports will take effect Sept. 24, leading China to threaten retaliatory tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods. The U.S. tariffs will launch at a rate of 10% before rising to 25% Jan. 1 — a level that will have a more meaningful impact on the U.S. economy if trade tensions haven’t cooled by then, Girard added.

The U.S. stock market remains strong despite escalating trade tensions between the U.S. and China. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
The U.S. stock market remains strong despite escalating trade tensions between the U.S. and China. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

“If the tariffs rise to 25% into next year, if the scope of products broadens out, then it all becomes more significant,” she said.

Girard said that the U.S. equity market continues to be strong despite the U.S.-China tit-for-tat because “markets are not willing to bet on a worst-case outcome,” or on the prospect of long-term tariff escalation. The S&P 500 (^GSPC) and Dow (^DJI) soared to record highs during trading Thursday.

Rather than intending to maintain high tariffs, the Trump administration may instead be using the levies as a negotiating tool “to address what they believe is a longstanding situation of unfair trade practices that have hurt U.S. companies,” such as alleged theft of American intellectual property, Girard said.

But the Bank of China’s Yong Ma, sharing the stage with Girard on Thursday, said the U.S. stock market will begin to see adverse effects of the trade war as time drags on.

“The impact to the economy is limited now…but that’s the short term,” he said. “Look in the longer term, the impact will happen.”

Ma cited the struggles of farmers in the Midwest, who have been disproportionately hurt by China’s retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural goods, as a harbinger of the longer-term effects of an extended trade war. Ma also pointed to Alibaba (BABA) Chairman Jack Ma’s recent revocation of his promise to create 1 million jobs in the U.S. as a business casualty in the U.S.-China trade war.

“If you prolong the process and escalate it, that will be painful for both sides,” Yong Ma said.

Emily McCormick is a reporter with Yahoo Finance.