By Ed Oswald
President Donald Trump’s now-scrapped plan to impose a 5% tariff on Mexico starting Monday could have made a major impact on the cars and tech Americans love.
The impacts may seem less obvious than the tariffs the Trump administration imposed on China in early 2018. Americans depend on Chinese manufacturing for products like iPhones, computers, and TVs, as well as the components inside. But Mexico is a major producer of cars sold in the U.S., along with computers and electronic parts.
Mexico is second to only China in the number of computers it exports: GoPro will manufacture U.S.-bound devices in Guadalajara later this year. Foxconn, which manufactures a ton of brand-name tech products, has multiple factories in the country, and Universal Electronics will soon move remote control manufacturing from Mexico to China.
Tech manufacturers are likely happy that the tariffs aren’t going to happen (for now). Trump tweeted Friday that the U.S. had reached an agreement with Mexico in order to stop the tariffs, though he did not give specifics on the deal.
Trump initially said he’d increase the tariff by 5% a month, to a maximum of 25% by October 1. Such punitive measures would have had far-reaching effects and American consumers would likely foot the bill on a variety of tech products.
That said, deals like this are fickle and tariffs could still come in the future. Here’s how an escalating U.S.-Mexico trade war would impact tech:
THE BIGGEST LOSER: AUTOMAKERS
Mexico’s largest export to the U.S. is in automobiles and auto parts. At $116 billion annually, a third of its exports are U.S. bound, according to Census Bureau statistics. Cars are where American businesses and consumers could feel the most pain. Thanks to free trade, automobile manufacturing often spans North America.
Take the modern Volkswagen Passat. Manufactured in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the engine is built at the automaker’s Silao, Mexico plant, but contains parts manufactured by partners across all three North American countries, as well as China and elsewhere. It’s incredibly difficult to find a car in the U.S. that’s completely manufactured here.
It’s important to mention that the level of exposure varies manufacturer to manufacturer. Volkswagen stands to lose the most because it imports nearly half of its automobiles sold in the U.S. from Mexico, Cars.com executive editor Joe Wiesenfelder told Digital Trends. But U.S.-based automakers have plenty to worry about too: Ford, GM, and Fiat Chrysler also import significant numbers of fully-manufactured cars back into the U.S.
This may be the biggest threat of Mexican tariffs. “Though the Chinese tariffs are a full 25%, they affect only two major models, SUVs from Buick and Volvo,” Wiesenfelder explained. “If the proposed Mexico tariffs happen, they’ll start at 5% but will encompass both many assembled vehicles and countless auto parts.”
Wiesenfelder noted that all automakers with plants in the U.S. source parts from Mexican factories, so the effects could be much further reaching than some might expect.
If a deal falls through and tariffs eventually do take effect, the end result might be higher prices for new cars, but it’s hard to say if prices could rise in time for the 2020 model year. “If it turns into a standoff, however, I think it’s likely we’d see prices increase. Because so many brands are affected, it’s more likely the automakers will pass on some of the cost rather than absorb it indefinitely,” Wiesenfelder said.
Not good news for an industry with an already difficult market thanks to higher interest rates for many borrowers.
A U.S. TECH MANUFACTURER SOUNDS THE ALARM
It’s not just automakers that are concerned. Illinois-based component and accessory manufacturer OWC says it has focused on bringing its manufacturing back to North America, but the threat of new tariffs poses a real threat to its business.
OWC manufacturers around 3,000 different products, ranging from hard drives to solid state drives, PC docks, memory kits, and even smartphone cases. With annual sales of $125 million, the company has done well by pairing its offices in Austin and Brownsville, Texas with its manufacturing facilities in Matamoros. But tariffs would threaten the future of this strategy, and he says both sides of the border will be affected — and people could lose their jobs.
While CEO Larry O’Connor told DigitalTrends that OWC could weather a short term 5% percent tariff on Mexican imports without an effect on its workforce or prices to the end consumer, the threat of higher tariffs is unacceptable.
“A longer-term 25% tariff on Mexican imports could be devastating to our business, our customers, and the hundreds of team members in Mexico,” he said. O’Connor lamented the uncertainty caused by the Trump Administration’s trade strategy, arguing businesses need ” a level of consistency and predictability to operate successfully,” and that a long-term tariff battle could spell trouble for his company’s plans.
“If the proposed tariff situation regarding Mexican imports is not resolved quickly, OWC will have no choice but to reconsider our overall North American manufacturing strategy,” he warned.
But it’s not just OWC that will be affected. Much larger companies stand to lose as well. Dell and HP manufacture their computers and other peripherals in Mexico: Cisco uses a Mexico-based partner for components. Apple uses at least three component suppliers with ties to Mexico, while Lenovo has multiple production lines in the country.
‘IT’S POSSIBLE FOR THEM TO GET HIT TWICE’
Trump’s insistence on tariffs as a method of trade negotiation will have a compounding effect, say economic experts. James Cassel, co-founder and investment banker with Cassel Salpeter & Co says that some tech companies may find themselves dealing with new costs they hadn’t planned for, in multiple aspects of their business.
“With tech companies using an international supply chain, it is possible for them to get hit twice,” Cassel said. It’s common for components to be sourced from multiple regions — so your tech gadget might have a circuit board or other parts from China, but assembled in Mexico. It’s the nature of the globalized economy we live in. And it’s not like these companies can make major shifts overnight.
“I do not believe that companies, whether manufacturing tech gadgets or anything else, have had sufficient time to shift production to Mexico from China, if they did not already have production in Mexico prior to the tariffs,” he argued. In the short term, those costs are going to be eaten by these companies, and more likely passed along in the form of higher prices for a wide variety of products in the longer term as the trade war ravages on.
Like O’Connor, Cassel also took the Trump Administration to task over its seemingly haphazard trade policies, and the unpredictability it brings.
“What is really of concern is that we are being forced to play whack-a-mole where companies that produce tech components need to be ready to respond at any moment to another challenge that pops up,” Cassel said
That’s the issue that many tech manufacturers seem to not have an solution for, and has many of them scrambling to contain the damage.