Aug 12, 2019

More hidden fees may be on the way from Trump's China trade war

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The U.S.-China trade war looks set to continue and likely escalate, bringing more tariffs to imports of Chinese goods, with the latest round adding a 10% charge to consumer products like clothing, toys and electronics.

Between the lines: Large retailers like Walmart and Target have said they will have no choice but to pass the cost of tariffs on to customers, but it's very likely the cost of the tariffs and many other increased charges won't be fully disclosed on price tags.

What's happening: Research from Diego Aparicio and Roberto Rigobon of MIT finds that in recent years it has become almost impossible for companies to raise prices. Instead they resort to "shrinkflation" — reducing the size of products or their quality while charging the same price, per the Economist.

  • "A 5.5% jump in the cost of a pint after years of 5% increases does not send beer drinkers searching for other pubs in the way that a 0.5% hike after years of no change might," the magazine explains. "Thus falling inflation can make prices 'stickier.' To compensate, firms instead find other ways to impose costs on buyers."

Be smart: Consumers have seen this phenomenon recently from companies like Postmates and DoorDash, who have padded revenues by hiding the true price of their service in various hidden fees or even dressed up as "tips."

  • As GrubHub CEO Matt Maloney pointed out in a recent interview with Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva, when customers order via most delivery services, they find multiple charges like a "small plate fee" or "service fee" wrapped into the overall price that can add up to much more than the advertised delivery charge.

Flashback: The Obama White House issued a report on such fees in 2016, detailing the ways companies in the automotive, banking, concert and telecom sectors, to name just a few, hide their real prices from consumers.

  • These hidden fees have become entrenched revenue generators for businesses like hotels, which reap big profits from hidden "resort fees," and airlines that charge for services previously included in the airfare, like baggage or seat assignments.

The bottom line: A major outcome of President Trump's trade war with China may be that consumers get stuck with higher prices and lower quality goods that still don't move the needle on inflation because companies aren't marking up the price of the items themselves.

Go deeper

Trump trade war: 15% tariffs on Chinese imports take effect

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The Trump administration's trade war with China entered a new phase on Sunday morning as new 15% tariffs on about $110 billion of Chinese imports took effect, Bloomberg reports.

Why it matters: Per the New York Times, the move changes the rules of trade in ways that have no recent historic precedent. "This is the first time U.S. consumers will see the costs quite directly, right as we head into the busiest shopping time of the year," Western Washington University economics professor Edward Alden told the Washington Post. China has introduced retaliatory taxes, the first phase of which came into effect Sunday.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Sep 1, 2019

U.S. delays impending China tariffs on some products until December

Shipping containers from China and Asia are unloaded at the Long Beach port, California. Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The impending 10% tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports targeted by President Trump in the trade war will be delayed from Sept. 1 to Dec. 15 for certain products, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced Tuesday. Certain products will also be taken off the list based on "health, safety, national security and other factors."

Why it matters: The delay — for items like cellphones, laptops, video game consoles, certain toys, computer monitors, and certain items of footwear and clothing — will help accommodate the holiday rush to ship products from China, easing the financial burden on U.S. importers. The Dow spiked 2% on the news, with the share price of companies like Apple, Best Buy, Dollar Tree, Hasbro and Gap leading the surge.

Go deeperArrowAug 13, 2019

Scoop: How the U.S. decided which China tariffs will be delayed

The U.S. flag flies over a container ship unloading it's cargo from Asia, at the Port of Long Beach, California. Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration's list of goods from China that won't be subject to a 10% tariff until Dec. 15 is made up of "products where 75% or more of the 2018 U.S. imports of that product were from China," according to an email sent to trade groups from the U.S. Trade Representative Office.

Why it matters: The initial press release from the USTR said certain items would see a delay in taxes "as part of USTR's public comment and hearing process," but it did not specify whether there was a formula involved in the two list designations. The items subject to the Sept. 1 tariff are those that are less commonly imported from China.