Manufacturing

Manufacturers Face Higher Costs, Global Uncertainty from Trade War

Tight Squeeze

President Trump has made no secret of his hope that a series of tariffs on goods from China and other countries will eventually force a more favorable balance of trade for the U.S. But in the meantime, the escalating trade war has posed very real, often negative impacts for manufacturers, particularly in the form of higher costs and a general sense of uncertainty that makes it difficult to pursue growth. And no one seems to have any idea when the situation will ease up.

A trade war can hurt business in more ways than one, Kristin Carlson says.

For example, as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, her manufacturing company, Westfield-based Peerless Precision, doesn’t buy a lot of foreign materials, like steel and aluminum — in fact, she buys about 95% domestic — so she hasn’t been subject to the direct cost increases on imported goods resulting from the volley of back-and-forth tariffs posed by President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“As a result of tariffs and increased pressure on domestic supply, we’ve had supply and demand issues. We’ve been seeing pricing going up 25% to 40% from what we have historically paid.”

But those increased costs of Chinese products have pressured the domestic supply chain, so she is, indeed, paying more.

“As a result of tariffs and increased pressure on domestic supply, we’ve had supply and demand issues. We’ve been seeing pricing going up 25% to 40% from what we have historically paid,” she said. “Costs are a big issue.”

Peerless Precision, which makes parts for the aerospace and defense industries, employs 32 people and has generated strong revenue in recent years, but profits are being squeezed by the trade war.

Kristin Carlson says manufacturers are dealing with price increases and supply-chain disruptions due to the recent tariffs.

Lead times are also affected, she added. “Because of this supply and demand issue on the domestic supply chain, companies are stocking up to make sure they’re getting the prices they need. When times are normal, we’ll get material in one to three business days, and that’s turned into one to four weeks.”

Trump’s trade war, now about 18 months old, has had a ripple effect on the global supply chain of many products, driving up the price of imported raw materials and finished goods. It’s not just manufacturers feeling the heat — for example, farmers have lost lucrative markets as well.

NPR recently reported that cranberry growers worked for years to develop a market in China, and sales of dried cranberries to China increased by more than 1,000% between 2013 and 2018. But after the White House approved tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods in July, China immediately retaliated with tariffs on dozens of U.S. goods, including dried cranberries, and now growers — many of them in Massachusetts — are faced with a serious glut of product.

That’s just one example of the impact of tariffs, but for manufacturers, the equation can have even more moving parts (pun intended). Many shop owners say the uncertainty of the situation is causing them to hold off on hiring and expansion because they’re not sure how or when a deal will take shape.

“The imposition of 15% tariffs on $112 billion worth of Chinese goods on Sept. 1 underscores the uncertainty facing employers, particularly manufacturers, who do business in overseas markets,” Raymond Torto, chair of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Board of Economic Advisors, wrote last month. “At the same time, employers are beginning to see evidence from both customers and suppliers of a slowdown in the U.S. economy.”

Stirring the Pot

Robert Lawrence, professor of International Trade and Investment at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, recently told the Boston Globe that, while U.S. strategy over the past century has been to use protectionist measures like tariffs sparingly, Trump has a more aggressive outlook.

“This is at odds with the entire thrust of our policies over the post-war period,” he said. “We’re acting unilaterally. We’re bullying the Chinese by putting these tariffs on them.”

The Trump administration has taken aim at China for a variety of economic reasons, from the nations’ trade imbalance to accusations that Chinese companies steal intellectual property from American companies. But, as Carlson noted, China isn’t the only affected supplier.

“When we submit a quote for a customer purchase, we’re locked into the price we quote them. If our cost changes, we have to suck it up. We can’t go back to the customer and say, ‘oops, materials went up 50%, so we have to raise the price.’ We don’t do that.”

“Tariffs weren’t just slapped onto China, but onto Canada, Mexico … maybe three to five countries in the entire world don’t have tariffs on them.”

Not all manufacturers see the impact the same way. Eric Hagopian, who owns Pilot Precision Products in South Deerfield, told the Globe that, while the price of domestic steel he buys has gone up 43% this year, the tariffs are boosting American industry as many companies are moving to American products as a result of tariffs on products from Pilot Precision’s Chinese competitors. “It actually helps our business,” he said.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., said he has heard from members with differing perspectives on the impact of the trade war.

“Some people, I think, are really impacted; they feel there are some pretty serious impacts on cost and competitiveness,” he told BusinessWest. “Then, if you go to someone like Eric Hagopian, he’s a little less adamant that it’s a big issue.”

MassBenchmarks, an initiative of the UMass Donahue Institute and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, reported on economic trends in Massachusetts this week, pointing out that the economy is doing well overall, with low unemployment, but employment and output growth are decelerating.

“Growth in the global economy is slowing, and labor-supply constraints, softening demand, and rising international geopolitical uncertainty all signal concerns for the economy going forward,” the report notes.

Rick Sullivan says manufacturers — and other businesses — have differing takes on the pros and cons of a trade war, but no one likes the uncertainty it generates.

Board members focused on a number of broad sources of uncertainty in the economic and geopolitical environment and what they could mean for the Massachusetts economy. One board member said the current environment is characterized by “considerable internal and external disharmony,” which includes ongoing trade conflicts, as well as continued tension around Brexit, the apparent impacts of climate change, particularly as it relates to agricultural production in various places around the world, and increasing instability in global markets among advanced economies. Against that backdrop, Trump’s ongoing impeachment inquiry is yet another wild card.

But there’s a reason MassBenchmarks placed trade conflicts at the top of that list.

“I think they create an uncertainty, and they increase costs,” Sullivan said. “Certainly, costs are a concern, and competitiveness is a concern.”

Cost and Effect

Those costs aren’t easily passed on to customers, Carlson said, and manufacturers, by and large, would rather not do that.

“When we submit a quote for a customer purchase, we’re locked into the price we quote them,” she explained. “If our cost changes, we have to suck it up. We can’t go back to the customer and say, ‘oops, materials went up 50%, so we have to raise the price.’ We don’t do that.”

AIM releases its Business Confidence Index every month, gauging exactly that — how member businesses are feeling about the economic outlook of the state and their own businesses. The overall Index, which is scored on a 100-point scale, has lost 3.7 points since a year ago but remains within optimistic territory.

“For a long time, a lot of us have been eating the material cost increases. Everything I hear is there’s not really an end date. We’ll see what happens.”

However, September’s reading was weighed down by weakening sentiment among Bay State manufacturers. The Index’s manufacturing component dropped 2.4 points in September and has lost 7.9 points for the year. Non-manufacturers were more confident than manufacturers by a 6.5-point margin.

The results mirrored the national Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index, which fell to its lowest level since 2009 last month. A separate report by IHS Markit showed that the manufacturing sector suffered its worst quarter since 2009, though activity increased during September.

“Manufacturers are bearing the brunt of both actual and threatened tariffs against goods imported from China,” Torto wrote. “Many Massachusetts companies have also become caught in retaliatory tariffs and are seeing significant weakening of their overseas business.”

Michael Tyler, chief investment officer at Eastern Bank Wealth Management and a BEA member, noted that the gaps in confidence between manufacturing companies and other businesses appear to be growing.

“Manufacturing has been hit by the steady increase in tariffs imposed by the United States, China, and other nations since 2018,” he noted. “The World Trade Organization estimates that the flow of goods across borders will increase by just 1.2% this year, and manufacturing companies are feeling that downdraft.”

Carlson is feeling it, for sure, and as president of the Western Mass. chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Assoc., she knows others are, too.

“For a long time, a lot of us have been eating the material cost increases,” she told BusinessWest, conceding that the uncertainty around the trade war has been equally vexing. “Everything I hear is there’s not really an end date. We’ll see what happens.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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