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Since his inauguration eighteen months ago, Donald Trump has stepped up his attacks on trade with Europe. After having imposed higher tariffs on European steel (+25%) and aluminium (+10%), he is seriously considering imposing tariffs of 2.5% to 20 or 25% on non-American cars.

In the light of the actions of the Trump administration, Europe has decided to fight back very recently. First of all, by filing a complaint with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Then deciding to retaliate by imposing tariffs on imports (of 25% in most cases) on certain US products, including vehicles, which are currently subject to import duties of 10%.

A few eloquent figures

These statistics come from Invest Securities: in 2017, the Americans exported nearly two million vehicles, worth 57 billion dollars. At the same time, they imported 8.3 million (worth 192 billion dollars), of which over 6.8 million came from four countries: Mexico (2.4 million), Canada (1.8 million), Japan (1.7) and South Korea (0.9 million). As far as Europe is concerned, Germany exports by far the most vehicles to the land of Uncle Sam. There are only 657,000 units (according to the VDA) for German car manufacturers, who nevertheless hold 90% of the premium market in the US. Germany imports 166,000 vehicles from the States.

Work it out for yourself: 57 billion of exports compared with 192 billion of imports, so we are talking about a deficit of around 135 billion dollars just on ‘cars & light trucks’ for the United States. In 2012, that deficit was 105 billion. Add to that the deficit on components (which rose from 40 to 60 billion in five years) and on heavy trucks (from 2.7 to 8 billion from 2012 to 2017), and you will soon understand the scale of the competitiveness problem being experienced by the US automobile industry (in the broadest definition).

A question of ‘standards’?

The US President opened hostilities a while back: “Why don’t the Germans buy as many American cars as the Americans buy German cars?” The former German Foreign Affairs Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, wasted no time replying: “All the Americans have to do is make better cars”.

What may initially sound like politicians indulging in a slanging match does actually mask an underlying truth. The US automobile market has imposed ‘quality’ standards which are only shared by … the Americans.

And then, not even by all of them! For around thirty years, a growing proportion of Americans have been looking for vehicles that are more in line with the habits of the rest of the world, leaving the local market with serious competitiveness problems.

To compensate those problems (at least in part), nothing seems to be more logical than to relocate part of the assembly and component manufacture. Especially to Mexico.

Bearing in mind his famous “America First” campaign slogan, it is just as logical for Donald Trump to try to reverse that trend.

It should be borne in mind that the American manufacturers could be the ones primarily hit by Trump’s measure. For example, Ford manufactures in Mexico for the US market.

A major headache in store?

By emphasising imports, Trump has probably overlooked one detail: the foreign car manufacturers have invested in factories in the United States. So the largest BMW factory in the world is in Spartanburg, North Carolina. Mercedes-Benz also has a plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Volkswagen has one in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

So while German manufacturers exported 657,000 vehicles to the New World last year, they also produced around 804,000 units (still according to VDA). And according to Bloomberg Intelligence, those same manufacturers exported nearly 490,000 vehicles they produced in the United States to countries in the rest of the world (including Europe).

So those manufacturers run the risk of being penalised twice by the customs regime imposed by the two continents. The tariffs – if they are passed on to consumers (at least in part), which is a certainty – are likely to increase on certain models. Unless they adapt their production models, by deciding to produce closer to markets without exporting. And that has consequences: modifying the production lines in a car plant – or in this case, several plants – costs money, and it will not come cheap!

Unless the manufacturers set up assembly lines in the USA to assemble vehicles imported as kits, with lower value added than a good old local factory with a close-knit local network of component suppliers. This practice would enable them to escape the tariffs.

And if the American President also attacks car parts, his administration risks tearing its hair out. Just how American will those parts be? Component supply chains are often very long. They may actually be made in Europe (or elsewhere), modified in the US and then sent back to another country to be assembled into kits before returning to the States to the supplier of a Mexican manufacturer. Watch this space!

Fortunately, imports/exports of used cars from and to the United States remain marginal.