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Trump's New Tariffs Will Hurt Retail's Most Vulnerable Areas

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Trump's New Tariffs Will Hurt Retail's Most Vulnerable Areas

When President Donald Trump raised tariffs on a wide swath of imports from China last week, he may have put some major retail brands in serious danger.

With one stroke of the pen, Trump increased the tariffs from 10% to 25% on $200B worth of Chinese exports, including a great many consumer products sold by American retailers, the Wall Street Journal reports. The S&P 500 Retailing index fell by 3% after Trump announced the new round of tariffs, outpacing the overall market's decline of 2.2%.

Stocks of several major retailers, including Walmart, Target, Macy's and JCPenney, also dove in reaction to the news, the WSJ reports. Those declines could deepen as first-quarter earnings reports roll in over the next few days, especially since an estimated $40B worth of consumer goods would have their import prices directly affected.

Sellers of those goods, like luggage, clothing and furniture, will either have to raise prices significantly or cut into their margins — margins already being tested by the need to reinvent their brick-and-mortar stores and supply chains. Of all retail types, department stores will likely have the most overlap between their inventories and products on the Section 301 tariff list.

Department stores have been hit the hardest by changes in consumer behavior over the past 10 years, with apparel and soft goods retailers in general affected most directly by the growing primacy of e-commerce. Despite the risks involved in a 150% tariff increase, Trump said in remarks from the Oval Office, "I love the position we're in." 

JCPenney, already predicted by many to be following Sears into bankruptcy, can scarcely afford to alienate more customers with price hikes. If it decided to eat the cost of the tariffs instead, it could see earnings decline as much as 140%, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch study reported by the WSJ. Of the brands studied, Kohl's is in a distant second in terms of projected losses, at 40% worth of earnings.

If JCPenney were to pass on the cost of the new tariffs to its customers, it would likely raise prices by an average of 2.6%, according to the same study, while Kohl's would face a 2.7% price jump, the highest BofA found.

The Section 301 tariffs are separate from the tariffs on raw steel and aluminum imports, which fall under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 and were not affected by the most recent hike.