In case there was any doubt that the import tariffs Trump wants to impose would be bad for the United States’ automobile industry, it will. How do we know? General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) just said so, send GM stock down nearly 3% on Friday, with the downtrend continuing as this week began.
Of course, consider the source. Anything that merely poses the threat of higher input costs or just might crimp demand as billed as a tragic turn of events.
Just for the sake of intellectual honesty though, the proposed and now-enacted tariffs aren’t really about tariffs, nor would they up-end General Motors if they were.
They’re a negotiating tactic, and even if they remain in place for a while, they may well force carmakers to lean on U.S. suppliers of materials and components. That could actually help create demand within the all-important North American market.
What They Said
On official comments filed with the U.S. Commerce Department last week, GM explained:
“Combined with the other trade actions currently being pursued by the U.S. Government — namely the Section 232 Steel and Aluminum tariffs and the Section 301 tariffs against Chinese imports — the threat of additional tariffs on automobile imports could be detrimental to our company. At some point, this tariff impact will be felt by customers.”
The same feedback went on to say “Increased import tariffs could lead to a smaller GM, a reduced presence at home and abroad for this iconic American company, and risk less — not more — U.S. jobs.”
It’s not just GM, and owners of GM stock, that are vulnerable, of course. Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes GM rivals Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (NYSE:FCAU) among others, said in a statement released Wednesday morning:
“Tariffs on autos and auto parts raise vehicle prices for all customers, limit consumer choice and invite retaliatory action by our trading partners.”
That statement went on to say, “Automakers support reducing trade barriers across the board and achieving fairness through facilitating rather than inhibiting trade.”
There’s no mixed message about GM stock there. And to be fair, there’s enough legitimacy to the arguments. The arguments, however, don’t see the bigger picture.
The Rest of the Story on GM Stock
Wednesday’s public comments from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers noted that the impending tariffs on imports could “invite retaliatory action by our trading partners.” Fair enough. But, they ignore the reality that many of our trading partners (and our biggest, China) already impose steep tariffs on goods sent there.
Specifically, U.S. carmakers pay an extra 15% of a vehicle’s value for the right to ship to, and sell it in, China. Until May, that tariff was costing U.S. automakers an extra 25% of those vehicles’ values.
It’s a not-so-minor detail that underscores what President Donald Trump is trying to do with his seemingly antagonistic measures that ultimately aim to benefit U.S. companies. He’s making it exceedingly clear that the nation’s trade partners won’t be able to impose their own import tariffs on U.S. goods simply because they can (and simply because we can afford to pay them).
But a reckless endeavor all the same, risking a ripple effect so strong that not even the United States’ companies shrug it off?
Maybe. But, probably not.
Economics and capitalism veteran Larry Kudlow recently explained of the well-vocalized war of threats:
“When you have these complicated trade negotiations, part of it — and part of the president’s quiver — is going to be tariffs, whether we like it or not. But he has to use them in order to achieve the goal of leveling the playing field and bringing down these barriers.”
Granted, he’s the Director of the United States National Economic Council, and as such has to maintain at least some sort of prima facie support of the White House.
Of all the experts and advisers surrounding the President, however, he’s one of the few who has no political career to protect. He could always move back into the expert-commentator role, and make considerably more money in doing so.
In other words, Kudlow’s assessment holds water. It’s just that, in a politically-charged environment like the one we’re living in now, few people want to look, think and see beyond the headlines.
Impact on GM Stock
Critics of the premise will point to the fact that China has already made arrangements with suppliers of much-needed goods… goods that used to be supplied by U.S. outfits, but have become too expensive to sell to China.
Case in point? Soybeans, for one. A new 25% tariff put in place on soybeans delivered from the United States to China has essentially stymied all purchases of the U.S. supply. Ergo, China has altogether eliminated the previous soybean tariff of 3% for suppliers India, South Korea, Bangladesh, Laos and Sri Lanka. Russia’s enjoying it’s added soybean business too.
Take a closer look at the situation though. First, there simply may not be enough soybean supply without the U.S. being in the picture to not buy U.S. soybeans. And second, indirectly enriching India, South Korea, Bangladesh, Laos and Sri Lanka also means those emerging markets will further empower those consumers who may just buy a GM car.
In the meantime, if the Unites States auto industry is forced to buy parts from domestic sources rather than from foreign sources, it just might help boost much-needed domestic demand from increasingly empowered U.S. consumers who enjoy their higher-paying jobs making those very parts.
So, no, it’s not a reason to sell your GM stock. General Motors is doing what any other company would do, making noise as a means of keeping its costs as low as possible without disrupting its revenue stream any more than it has to.
Whatever the case, in the end, domestic companies find a way. Consumers find a way. Foreign companies find a way. Capitalism finds a way.
The Last Word on GM Stock
If GM was willing to, it could take a step back and see that last year’s $566 billion trade deficit — meaning the United States bought $566 billion more worth of goods from overseas providers than they bought from us — is actually an opportunity rather than a necessity. It’s just going to be ugly going through the process of redirecting that flow of money through the more advantageous channels.
Or, better yet, our foreign trade partners could recognize that Trump is serious and stop forcing the United States to subsidize the rest of the world on their terms.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.