NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The White House's decision Tuesday to impose quotas on Chinese textile goods may end up hurting the U.S. economy, and U.S. workers, more than it helps.
The decision sent a shudder through the currency market, prompting traders to send the euro to its highest level ever and to push the yen near three-year highs. The worry: Due to its trade surplus with the United States, and its currency's peg to the U.S. greenback, China has been a steady buyer of dollar-denominated assets.
Take that away, and servicing the massive U.S. current account deficit -- the gap in the United States' trade in goods and services with the rest of the world -- gets a lot harder. The easiest way for the current account, which stands at over 5 percent of gross domestic product, to adjust would be a sharp drop in the dollar.
Another possibility: The administration is trying to play hardball with China's currency peg, which many U.S. exporters say gives China an unfair competitive advantage. A revaluation of the yuan is also seen as dollar negative, first because it would mean that China would no longer need to buy as many dollar assets to support its peg, second because it would mean that a whole raft of export-oriented countries (Japan front and center) would no longer need fight to keep their currencies weak for fear of getting crowded out by China.
The dollar's weakness and quotas on Chinese imports are obviously beneficial to U.S. exporters and the people who work for them. Textile companies will have less Chinese goods to compete with at home, thanks to the quota, and the weaker dollar will mean they can be more competitive on price, both at home and abroad. With hope, they'll pass through these increased profits to their workforce.
But other companies will get hurt if the White House's pressure on China trade continues.
Consider Wal-Mart. The world's largest retailer accounts for about one-tenth of U.S. sales, excluding autos. Its direct purchases from China account for about one-tenth of U.S. Chinese imports.
Or the second-largest U.S. retailer, Home Depot. The do-it-yourself outfit opened up two new sourcing offices in China's bustling cities of Shanghai and Shenzhen in the past year, enabling it to deal directly with its vendors. Home Depot's Hampton Bay ceiling fan and lighting products lines, for example, and its Ryobi consumer power tools are all made in China.
A trade dispute with China, or a revaluation of the Chinese yuan would make China-made goods more costly for companies like Home Depot and Wal-Mart and would likely pressure profit margins. When margins get pressured, companies cut costs -- and the number one way to cut costs is to cut workers. Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States, so this matters.
Will the new jobs in, say, textile mills make up for the losses at places like Wal-Mart?
The United States recent experience with steel suggests not. When the White House imposed steel tariffs in March of last year, it opened itself up to withering criticism not just from abroad, but from U.S. manufacturers who complained that they and the many more employees who worked for them were getting hurt far more than the steel industry was being helped.
"The steel tariff cost more jobs than it saved and I'm sure this Chinese bra ban will also contribute to net job losses," said Northern Trust U.S. chief economist Paul Kasriel.