President Trump doesn’t want to be the Grinch who stole Christmas for American consumers. That’s a major reason why the White House decided this week to push off the implementation of new tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods until mid-December.
Trump admitted as much on Tuesday, telling reporters that “we’re doing this for the Christmas season just in case some of the tariffs would have an impact on US customers.” He added that the tariffs on electronics, toys, sneakers and other products will be delayed “so they won’t be relevant for the Christmas shopping season.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro later issued similar comments about how the delay on tariffs, which were set to kick in on September 1, was kind of like an early holiday present to consumers.
But it’s still possible that Trump will eventually go ahead with the tariff hikes on December 15. With that in mind, experts said that it might not be a good idea for people to procrastinate when shopping for stocking stuffers or any other holiday gifts. The time to buy new iPhones, video games and Air Jordans is now.
Shop until you drop…because higher prices may be coming
“Nothing moves people like a deadline,” said Hun Quach, vice president of international trade for the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA). “I feel like I’ve been everyone’s personal shopper and my message is the time to buy some of these products is today…before any tariffs are imposed.”
Quach said that RILA – a trade organization that lists Best Buy (BBY), Gap (GPS), Home Depot (HD), Target (TGT) and Walmart (WMT) as leading members – had urged Trump to delay the tariffs and that she is happy the administration listened.
Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors, agreed. He called the tariff delay “Christmas in August” for consumers – and investors in retail stocks, Apple (AAPL), Nike (NKE), Hasbro (HAS) and other companies that will benefit from pushing out the hike until December.
“The White House was very specific to identify products that would be on many people’s wish lists for holiday shopping. This was targeted to soften the blow to the US consumer. It is an early present for shoppers – and investors,” Arone said.
But retailers are still worried about other tariffs that will kick in on September 1, including on sweaters, winter coats and lots of back to school supplies, RILA’s Quach said. Stores may have no choice but to raise prices, Quach said.
“Retailers are doing all they can to absorb these costs but many work on razor thin profit margins. A 10% tariff on goods like apparel will only add on to the cost that consumers pay,” Quach said.
Savvy consumers may need to act soon in order to avoid higher prices, according to Arone. That could mean that there’s a rush to shop between now and just after Black Friday. But December retail sales could be weak.
How much longer can consumers keep spending?
“Consumers may front load. There could be a one-time boost for video games, consoles and other tech products. But I wouldn’t be surprised if consumers decide to spend now and not wait to deal with tariff uncertainty,” Arone said.
All that begs the question of whether the US consumer is finally close to being tapped out. If there isn’t an actual resolution to the trade war and tariff hikes do kick in just before the end of the year, spending could grind to a halt in 2020.
Consumer debt is a growing problem for the economy. According to figures released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York this week, household debt balances rose nearly 1.5% in the second quarter to nearly $13.9 trillion.
The NY Fed noted that balances have been steadily rising for five years and are now well ahead of peak levels of $12.7 trillion from the third quarter of 2008.
“The health of the consumer is limited,” said Yousef Abbasi, director of U.S. institutional equities and global market strategist at INTL FCStone. Abbasi added that many consumers have loaded up on credit card debt, which tend to have high interest rates.
So the big concern is that there is only so much the consumer can do to keep the economy afloat. Higher tariffs may wind up being the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.