Trade war concerns

Import tariffs stirring fear at US ports

The Associated Press Ships are docked at the Port of Long Beach in Long Beach, Calif., on Aug. 22. Between them, the California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach account for a large amount of the seaborne goods that the U.S. imports from China.

The Associated Press

To understand why the impact of President Donald Trump’s tariffs could be felt throughout the United States, consider this:

From the West Coast to the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, at least 10 percent of imports at many ports could be hit by new tariffs if Trump’s proposals take full effect, according to an exclusive analysis of government data by The Associated Press.

Ports and ground terminals in nearly every state handle goods that are now or will likely soon be covered by import tariffs. And port officials fear this could mean a slowdown in shipping that would have ripple effects on truckers and others whose jobs depend on trade.

Since March, the U.S. has applied new tariffs of up to 25 percent on nearly $85 billion worth of steel and aluminum and various Chi­nese products, mostly goods used in manufacturing.

“Tariffs are working big time,” Trump tweeted recently.

Trump has argued that the tariffs will help protect American workers and force U.S. trading partners to change rules that the president insists are unfair to the U.S.

At the same time, his administration is preparing to slap tariffs of up to 25 percent on an additional $200 billion in Chinese imports — many of them parts and materials U.S. companies depend on, along with consumer goods — after a public comment period ends Thursday.

These tariffs are the administration’s response to its charges that Beijing uses predatory tactics to try to supplant U.S. technological supremacy. Those tactics include cyber-theft and a requirement that American companies hand over trade secrets in exchange for access to China’s market.

U.S. manufacturers are beginning to respond to the tariffs. On Friday, Ford announced that it has abandoned plans to import a crossover version of its Focus compact car from China to the U.S. because of tariffs that took effect in July. Ford has already said it will exit most of the U.S. car business as it shifts sharply toward trucks and SUVs.

In New Orleans, port officials say a tariff-related drop in shipments is real, not merely a forecast. Steel imports there have declined more than 25 percent from a year ago, according to the port’s chief commercial officer, Robert Landry.

The port is scouting for other commodities it can import. But expectations appear to be low.

“In our business, steel is the ideal commodity,” Landry said. “It’s big, it’s heavy, we charge by the ton so it pays well. You never find anything that pays as well as steel does.”

The port of Milwaukee imports steel from Europe and ships out agricultural products from the Midwest. Steel imports haven’t dropped yet because they are under long-term contracts, said the port director, Adam Schlicht. But there has been “an almost immediate halt” in outbound shipments of corn because of retaliatory duties imposed by the European Union on American products.

Much of the corn, he said, “is just staying in silos. They are filled to the brim.”

Many other ports have been humming along and even enjoyed an unexpected bump in imports during June and July as U.S. businesses moved up orders to ship before the new tariffs took effect. That started with manufacturing goods and is now spreading to retail items for back-to-school and Christmas.