Tariff

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DEFINITION of 'Tariff'

A tax imposed on imported goods and services. Tariffs are used to restrict trade, as they increase the price of imported goods and services, making them more expensive to consumers. A specific tariff is levied as a fixed fee based on the type of item (e.g., $1,000 on any car). An ad-valorem tariff is levied based on the item’s value (e.g., 10% of the car’s value). Tariffs provide additional revenue for governments and domestic producers at the expense of consumers and foreign producers. They are one of several tools available to shape trade policy.

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BREAKING DOWN 'Tariff'

Governments may impose tariffs to raise revenue or to protect domestic industries from foreign competition, since consumers will generally purchase foreign-produced goods when they are cheaper. While consumers are not legally prohibited from purchasing foreign-produced goods, tariffs make those goods more expensive, which gives consumers an incentive to buy domestically produced goods that seem competitively priced or less expensive by comparison. Tariffs can make domestic industries less efficient, since they aren’t subject to global competition. Tariffs can also lead to trade wars as exporting countries reciprocate with their own tariffs on imported goods. Groups such as the World Trade Organization exist to combat the use of egregious tariffs.

Governments typically use one of the following justifications for implementing tariffs:

  • To protect domestic jobs. If consumers buy less-expensive foreign goods, workers who produce that good domestically might lose their jobs.
  • To protect infant industries. If a country wants to develop its own industry producing a particular good, it will use tariffs to make it more expensive for consumers to purchase the foreign version of that good. The hope is that they will buy the domestic version instead and help that industry grow.
  • To retaliate against a trading partner. If one country doesn’t play by the trade rules both countries previously agreed on, the country that feels jilted might impose tariffs on its partner’s goods as a punishment. The higher price caused by the tariff should cause purchases to fall.
  • To protect consumers. If a government thinks a foreign good might be harmful, it might implement a tariff to discourage consumers from buying it.
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