President Trump may have targeted his threat of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, but business leaders across the economy are worried their products could become collateral damage.
Their concerns come after European officials this week threatened to respond in kind, with 25 percent tariffs that would take aim at roughly $3.5 billion worth of American-made goods, including blue jeans, motorcycles and orange juice. Such duties could hit iconic American brands such as Harley-Davidson, Levi Strauss & Co., and Kentucky bourbon makers.
Harley-Davidson happens to be based in Wisconsin, the home state of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who was one of the first to speak out against the looming trade war.
“We support free and fair trade,” the company said in a statement. “Import tariffs on steel and aluminum will drive up costs for all products made with these raw materials, regardless of their origin. Additionally, a punitive, retaliatory tariff on Harley-Davidson motorcycles in any market would have a significant impact on our sales, our dealers, their suppliers and our customers in those markets.”
Retail industry leaders said the proposed tariffs would undo many of the gains they’re expecting from the recent overhaul of the corporate tax code. It is too soon to tell, they said, exactly which industries would be hit the hardest, but they warned that the measures were likely to have a ripple effect on both consumers and workers.
“Our perspective is that a tariff is really the worst form of government intervention because it disrupts markets and is ultimately going to cost consumers, taxpayers and voters more money in the form of higher prices and lower wages,” Matthew Shay, chief executive of the National Retail Federation, said in an interview. “This is not what our economy needs right now.”
Estimates show, he said, that the U.S. would lose five jobs for every one job created if the tariffs were to be enacted, according to figures from the Trade Partnership Worldwide, a private consulting group.
“We have no doubt the European Union will retaliate by inflicting as much political pain as possible,” Shay said. “That’s our concern: That this escalates into something much worse.”
But others said it was too soon to speculate on the impacts of the proposed tariffs, which could still be months, if not years, away.
Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council, noted that the full details of Trump’s actions on imports of steel and aluminum had not yet been announced.
“Thus it’s premature to comment on any potential retaliation by our trade partners,” he said in a statement.
President Trump, for his part, took to Twitter on Saturday to respond to the EU’s proposed tariffs.
“If the E.U. wants to further increase their already massive tariffs and barriers on U.S. companies doing business there, we will simply apply a Tax on their Cars which freely pour into the U.S.,” Trump said. “They make it impossible for our cars (and more) to sell there. Big trade imbalance!”
Analysts said the implications on American companies could be more far-reacting than simply tariffs on imports. Tech giants like Facebook, Google and Netflix could face increased regulatory scrutiny and harsher treatment abroad if the U.S. were to impose tariffs on imports, accorssing to Mark Mahaney, an analyst for RBC Capital Markets.
“Tariffs by themselves are not material to Facebook and Google, but this could open the door to more aggressive treatment in other areas,” he said. “There are a number of reasons this is not good for business.”
A spokeswoman for Levi Strauss & Co., which was founded in 1853 in San Francisco, agreed.
“Unilateral tariff impositions risk retaliation and destabilizing the global economy, in which case American brands, workers and consumers will ultimately suffer,” the company said in a statement. “For more than 140 years consumers around the world have looked to Levi’s as one of the most inclusive American brands and this is only made possible by a free and fair trade system.”
Some industry leaders pointed to the fallout from President George W. Bush’s tariffs on steel imports, which began in 2002 and lasted for three years, as a cautionary tale. The policy led to 200,000 job losses in the first year because of higher steel prices, representing $4 billion in lost wages between February and November 2002, according to data from the Trade Partnership.
“A 25 percent tariff is a massive number when we’re talking about the middle class customers we serve every day,” said Hun Quach, vice president of international trade at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Of course we don’t know what the final results will look like, but retailers are closely following the president’s announcement and bracing for impact.”
At the World of Asphalt trade show in Houston this week, attendees said they feared that tariffs on American-made goods could lead to large-scale job losses.
“I had five or six manufacturers come up to me and say, ‘This is really going to hurt our business,’ ” said Dennis Slater, president of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.
E.U. tariffs, he said, would ricochet through the agricultural and manufacturing industries, with farmers likely “the first in line to have retaliation hit them.” If tariffs make it more difficult for farmers to sell corn or soybeans, Slater said, they aren’t likely to buy new tractors or other equipment, shifting the burden over to manufacturers.
Both Trump’s tariff threat, and any retaliation by the E.U., are still difficult to fully pin down. For now, Slater said he is most focused on contacting legislators and on “a call to arms to explain how detrimental it is to an industry.”
“I’ve been in this organization for 30 years,” Slater said. “And I’ve never had an issue so universally get the attention of our membership, and so universally behind it to say, ‘we can’t let this happen.’”