The National Retail Federation (NRF) took US retailers' concerns about protectionist trade polices to Ireland yesterday (15 May), claiming proposed tariffs and other actions will only drive up prices for US consumers while doing little to punish China or other targeted countries.

Speaking at a dinner held in Dublin as part of the Retail Excellence Ireland association's annual Retail Retreat conference, NRF CEO Matthew Shay said there is a risk of these threats escalating into a full-blown trade war with the Chinese announcing they will retaliate in kind.

"Many industries, especially agriculture, are already feeling the impact, even without the tariffs taking effect yet," he said. "Our view is that trade wars are only good at accomplishing three things: raising prices, destroying jobs and, perhaps worst off all, injecting massive amounts of uncertainty into the economy and global supply chains."

President Donald Trump last month signed an executive order to levy tariffs on $50bn of imports in China, Under Section 301 of the Trade Act – with an even larger list of additional goods, collectively valued at $100bn, also under consideration. China hit back with its own list of goods subject to possible retaliatory duties.

Shay added: "Long-standing concerns about China's unfair trade practices do need to be addressed, but the administration is considering tools like tariffs that have never worked in world history. Retailers depend on complex global supply chains and make their sourcing decisions six to nine months in advance of receiving products. Retailers are now in the final stages of holiday planning and the threat of tariffs is inserting a great deal of uncertainty in those plans."

Earlier this week, the NRF joined forces with more than 100 associations, to call on the Government to develop a strategy to address China's unfair trade practices rather than impose tariffs they say could harm the economy.

The conference, which was also attended by Irish lawmakers, comes amid rising concerns in the European Union regarding the Trump administration's trade agenda.

Shay also outlined the US retail industry's concerns over the administration's steel and aluminium tariffs, which he called a "tax on American families", and the direction of ongoing negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

"The administration has talked a lot about renegotiating or even withdrawing from NAFTA. This would be disastrous," he said. "It's clear that NAFTA needs to be modernised, but this agreement helps ensure that American families have access to products they need at prices they can afford." 

In addition, Shay said the NRF is disappointed that the first trade action of the new administration was to withdraw from the Transpacific Partnership Agreement.

"Remaining in the agreement and passing it would have set a strong tone from the start that the US continue to lead on trade," he added.