US Trade Warriors Pursue Some Obscure Cases

President Donald Trump’s high-profile trade offensives have grabbed headlines and rattled financial markets around the world. He’s battling China over the industries of the future, strong-arming Canada and Mexico into reshaping North American trade and threatening to tax cars from Europe. 

 

But his trade warriors are fighting dozens of more obscure battles — over laminated woven sacks from Vietnam, dried tart cherries from Turkey, rubber bands from Thailand and many others.

Under the radar, the Trump administration has launched 162 investigations into allegations that U.S. trading partners dump products at cut-rate prices or unfairly subsidize their exporters — a 224% jump from the number of cases the Obama administration pursued in the same time in office.  

  

If the U.S Commerce Department finds that U.S. companies have been hurt — and ultimately if the independent International Trade Commission goes along — the offending imports are slapped with duties that can price them out of the market.

On Thursday, for instance, the department announced levies of up to 337% in combat over kitchen and bathroom countertops — or at least over the imported quartz slabs from China that many of them derive from. 

 

These cases have nothing directly to do with the mother of all Trump’s trade wars: a cage match with China over Beijing’s aggressive push to transform Chinese companies into world leaders in cutting-edge industries like artificial intelligence and electric cars. In that one, the world’s two biggest economies have slapped tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of each other’s products. 

Companies target competitors

 

The smaller anti-dumping and “countervailing duty” (aimed at unfair subsidies) cases are usually brought by U.S. companies or industries that say they’re being victimized by foreign competitors. But for the first time in more than 25 years, the administration in 2017 brought a case on its own — against a common alloy aluminum sheet from China — without waiting for an industry’s plea for help. 

 

“They’re much more aggressive in every way,” said Mary Lovely, a Syracuse University economist.  

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says that the administration’s trade policies have irrevocably changed the conversation on trade'' and that the dumping and subsidy caseshelp level the playing field for U.S. companies and workers.” 

 

Like any conflict, though, the battles over remote patches of the commercial marketplace leave winners and losers. Lovely says the Trump administration’s intervention in trade cases risks “tilting the playing field toward particular industries,” driving up prices and making the economy less efficient by driving away competition. 

 

Whatever the impact, the administration’s America First approach to trade is encouraging more companies to bring more cases.  

  

“Everybody knows that this administration is concerned about unfair trade and is very willing to offset unfair trade where that is warranted.,” said Gilbert Kaplan, the Commerce Department’s undersecretary for international trade. 

 

The dollar amounts in anti-dumping and countervailing duty cases are too small to make a real dent in the $21 trillion U.S. economy. But for the companies involved, the stakes often couldn’t be higher. 

Newsprint duties

 

America’s struggling newspapers, for instance, saw their costs spike when the Commerce Department last year imposed anti-dumping and countervailing duties on Canadian newsprint. Some newspaper companies planned layoffs as a result. But in August, the trade commission, which acts as an independent tribunal in trade cases, overturned the duties, sparing newspapers devastating cost increases. 

 

The newsprint case was brought by a single company: a hedge fund-owned paper producer in Washington state.  

  

Likewise, the offensive against imported quartz slabs from China originated from a single complaint: Cambria, a maker of quartz products, including high-end kitchen and bathroom countertops, based in Le Sueur, Minn.  

  

Cambria CEO Martin Davis says the U.S. marketplace was flooded by low-priced quartz slabs from China. Commerce Department figures show that imports from China surged 78% in 2016 and 54% in 2017. The influx, Davis said, was subsidized by the Chinese government. 

 

“My company was going down,” he said. 

 

Davis sought relief from the government. He said that pursuing the case has cost him $5 million. Commerce agreed to impose anti-dumping and countervailing duties on Chinese quartz slabs last year.  

  

On Thursday, the department announced its final decision on the duties, hitting Chinese quartz slabs with anti-dumping duties of up to 337% and with countervailing duties of up to 191%.  

​’We will lose money’

  

The levies are bad news for U.S. companies that make countertops from imported quartz. Jeff Keck of Marble Uniques in Tipton, Ind., says the higher duties struck while his company was working on a contract to provide quartz countertops to an apartment complex. 

 

“We will lose money on the project,” he said. 

 

Making things worse from his perspective: The duties are retroactive to August. 

 

Paul Nathanson, spokesman for the American Quartz Worker Coalition set up to fight the duties, said that Cambria is abusing trade law. 

 

“They are using the U.S. government to try to wipe out their competitors,” he said. 

 

The ITC held a hearing last week at which opponents of the duties argued that high-end Cambria doesn’t actually compete with inexpensive Chinese imports. The commission is expected to rule on the case next month. If it finds that Cambria wasn’t hurt by the imports, the ITC could strike down the duties. 

 

For now, the sanctions on quartz imports are helping some businesses, and not just Cambria. Among them is Blackbird Manufacturing, an Owensboro, Ky., company that makes stone countertops. CEO David Thomas said that Blackbird couldn’t compete with low-priced Chinese quartz for contracts with penny-pinching hotel chains. 

 

Now that Chinese quartz slabs are now being taxed out of the market, “we’re getting jobs landing twice a week, and they’re big jobs,” Thomas said. Blackbird has hired about 15 workers since June and now has a staff of 52. He plans to add 20 more this year. 

 

But as the administration mounts trade cases in dozens of industries, many companies, especially small ones, can be blindsided by duties they didn’t see coming, said Paula Connelly, a trade lawyer in Woburn, Mass. 

 

“I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve never seen this volume of investigation,” she said.  

  

Recently, she has fielded calls from importers who were hit unexpectedly by the big tariffs on quartz. One business owner said he might have to close shop. 

 

“They had two days to come up with a couple of hundred thousand dollars in anti-dumping and countervailing duties,” she said. 

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Retail Chiefs Dismiss AI Job Threat, Promise More Training

Executives from major global retailers played down the threat to employment in stores from artificial intelligence and automation on Thursday and pledged more training to help staff adopt more high-value tasks as machines take over their work.

Retail is one of the largest employers in many developed economies and experts have predicted automation puts millions of low-skilled jobs in the sector at risk, particularly as the introduction of self-checkouts makes cashiers redundant.

“Technology can liberate people from repetitive tasks,” Barbara Martin Coppola, chief digital officer at Swedish furniture giant IKEA, told Reuters on the sidelines of the World Retail Congress, an annual industry gathering.

“These jobs are not gone. We are believers in the talent we have in our house and we look to repurpose it into more fulfilling tasks.”

Martin Coppola said IKEA needs far fewer people to select the goods displayed on the firm’s website, known as online merchandising, as algorithms get more sophisticated. But these people can be trained in digital marketing instead.

“It is important to see technology as an enabler and not to let it be at the expense of human beings and the planet,” she said.

Walmart, the world’s biggest private employer with 2.2 million staff, has been adding self check-outs and announced last month that it would be rolling out automated shelf scanners, to check product availability, and cleaning robots.

“Cleaning the floor is not a thing that brings a person fulfillment,” said Tom Faitak, Walmart’s senior manager for AI, robotics and automation, adding that automating repetitive tasks gives staff more time to help customers.

“Robots are not fantastic at interacting with people,” he said. “Robots are good at doing the same task over and over, not finding an item on the shelf.”

Walmart staff who are freed up from some repetitive tasks are increasingly being redeployed to pick orders placed online and prepare them for curbside pickup.

Consultants McKinsey estimate that 53 percent of activities in retailing are automatable, particularly in stock management and logistics. It predicts that next generation automated grocery stores could see the number of labor hours for inventory and stocking cut by two thirds.

Walmart and Kroger – the biggest U.S. supermarket chain — say they are committed to developing their store workers so they are not left behind.

Walmart offers training to tens of thousands of associates through an “Academy” program, while Kroger launched a new scheme last year to promote continued education, from high school certificates to doctorates.

Kroger Chairman and Chief Executive Rodney McMullen, who started out as a store clerk at the chain and had his college education supported by the company, noted that U.S. unemployment was at its lowest for decades, pushing automation.

“Part of it is because you just can’t find people,” he said, noting that the company was creating higher-paid jobs in software engineering as it seeks to modernize the business. The Cincinnati-based company has built robot-aided warehouses and is trying out self-driving vehicles to improve delivery.

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Consumers Start to Feel Pinch From US, China Trade Standoff

As the U.S. and China escalate their trade standoff, consumers in both countries are starting to see the impact. VOA’s Mykhailo Komadovsky reports from Washington.

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Acting FAA Chief Defends Agency’s Safety Certification Process     

The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration defended the way his agency certifies airline safety after two deadly crashes of the now-grounded Boeing 737 Max jet.

Daniel Elwell called the system in which FAA-approved employees at plane manufacturers inspect the aircraft they built themselves “a good system.”

But skeptical Democrats on the House Transportation Committee questioned the agency’s credibility.

They told Elwell that the closeness between Boeing and the FAA may be one of the reasons it took the agency a relatively long time to ground the Boeing jets.

“The public perception is you were in bed with those you were supposed to be regulating,” Nevada’s Dina Titus said, while committee chairman Peter DeFazio wanted to know “How can we have a single point of failure on a modern aircraft?”

A Boeing 737 Max crashed off the coast of Indonesia in October and another 737 Max crashed in Ethiopia in March, killing a total of 346 people.

Both planes were equipped with a system designed to push the nose downward to prevent a midair stall.

Faulty sensor readings kept pushing the planes down while the pilots struggled to regain control.

The pilots did not know the planes were equipped with the anti-stall system and their manuals had no explicit information.

Elwell defended the FAA’s approval of the system on the Boeing jets, but admitted the system should have been better explained in the pilots’ operational and flight manuals.

He also faulted Boeing for failing to inform airlines and the FAA that a light that is supposed to flash when there is a faulty reading from the sensors did not work.

But Elwell said pilot error may have also contributed to the Indonesian and Ethiopian disasters.

The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation of Boeing, and Congress is looking into the relationship between Boeing and federal regulators.

Boeing plans to submit changes to the 737 Max software to the FAA, which will study the new software and carry out tests flights. Boeing will train pilots before allowing the planes to fly again.

 

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Costs Mounting in US From Trump’s Tariff Fight With China   

The costs seem to be mounting in the U.S. from President Donald Trump’s tit-for-tat trade tariff war with China, both for farmers whose sales of crops to China have been cut and U.S. consumers paying higher prices for imported Chinese products.

The government said Wednesday that to date it has paid out more than $8.5 billion to American farmers to offset their loss of sales to China and other trading partners because of foreign tariffs imposed by Beijing and other governments.​

​WATCH: Consumers Start to Feel Pinch From US, China Trade Standoff

Trump last year pledged up to $12 billion in aid to farmers — chiefly soybean, wheat and corn growers, and those who raise pigs. Trump says he could ask Congress for another $15 billion if U.S. farmers continue to be hurt by China’s tariffs of as much as 25%  on U.S. agricultural imports.

The U.S. had been shipping $12 billion worth of soybeans a year to China, but Beijing’s imposition of the tariff severely cut down on the U.S. exports as China bought the beans from other countries.

Trump said Tuesday on Twitter, “Our great Patriot Farmers will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of what is happening now. Hopefully China will do us the honor of continuing to buy our great farm product, the best, but if not your Country will be making up the difference based on a very high China buy. This money will come from the massive Tariffs being paid to the United States for allowing China, and others, to do business with us. The Farmers have been ‘forgotten’ for many years. Their time is now!”

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow acknowledged to a television interviewer last weekend that “to some extent” U.S. consumers will bear the brunt of higher costs on Chinese goods after Trump’s tariffs have been levied on the imported goods.

Trade Partnership Worldwide, a Washington economic consulting firm, estimates in a new study the typical American family of four people would pay $2,300 more annually for goods and services if Trump imposes a 25% tariff on all Chinese imports, as he says he is considering.

Such higher tariffs would hit an array of Chinese-produced consumer goods — clothing, children’s toys, sports equipment, shoes and consumer electronics — that are widely bought by Americans.

If that does not happen, but the existing U.S. tariffs remain in place, the research group says the average U.S. family would pay $770 in higher costs each year.

The U.S. imported almost $540 billion in Chinese goods in 2018, while the U.S. exported $120 billion, a trade imbalance that Trump is seeking to even out with imposition of the tariffs. The U.S. exported almost $59 billion in services to China, while importing only $18 billion, but services are not directly affected by tariffs.

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Ford: More Lincolns to Be Built for Chinese Market Locally

Ford Motor Co plans to start production of new luxury Lincoln models in China for that market as they are launched, starting with the new Corsair later this year, to benefit from lower costs and avoid the risk of tariffs, a top executive said Monday.

“It’s a huge, huge opportunity for Lincoln because we see China as ground zero for Lincoln given the size of the market and how well the brand has been received,” Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks said at a Goldman Sachs conference in New York.

Ford has lower levels of localized production than rivals General Motors Co or Volkswagen AG, who make more vehicles in China for Chinese consumers, benefiting from lower labor and material costs, and avoiding tariffs in the burgeoning trade war between the United States and China.

Shanks said all new Lincoln models, with the exception of the Navigator assembled in Louisville, Kentucky, will also be produced in China.

He declined to say how much Ford will save through localized production.

Ford has been struggling to revive sales in China, the automaker’s second-biggest market. Ford sales slumped 37 percent in 2018, after a 6 percent decline in 2017.

Shanks said that all of the problems the automaker experienced in China last year were related to the Ford brand, not Lincoln, which is popular with Chinese customers.

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Trade War Sowing Seeds of Doubt With US Farmers

The typical routines of life on a family farm carry a heavier burden these days for Pam Johnson.

“First thing I do is make a pot of coffee,” she told VOA in an interview in one of the cavernous sheds that contain her green and yellow John Deere farming equipment. Once she has that coffee, she “(goes) to the computer and look at what grain prices have done overnight and usually do a gut clutch, because they’ve been going down. They’re at five-month lows.”

Driven there in part by retaliatory tariffs imposed by one of the largest importers of U.S. soybeans – China.

Johnson and her husband are proud sixth-generation farmers but say they are dealing with some of the harshest economic conditions of their lives.

“We’re all tightening our belts,” she says.

The ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China, initially sparked by U.S. tariffs on imported aluminum and steel, is now impacting most farms across the country. 

As U.S. farmers head to the fields to plant this spring, they are facing a potential sixth consecutive year of declining farm income, because of international tariffs that have depressed prices for their grain products as well as increased costs for the materials to produce and store them.

​Short-term concern over U.S. trade policy is turning into long-term fear for farmers, who face uncertainty over congressional support for a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, and the impact of China’s retaliatory tariffs on U.S. grain exports. 

“We hear it may be out to 2025 before we see some of those markets come back to us, if they ever do,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the thing that hurts the most is, what is the damage being done that is irreparable?”

It is damage her son Ben Johnson, the seventh generation in the family business, may eventually have to deal with.

“All farms are going to suffer because of this,” he explained. “There’s a difference between ‘making it’ and flourishing.”

The Johnsons feel there is a growing disconnect between farmers and the rest of the American workforce, fueled by politicians increasingly hostile to trade policies the agricultural industry depends on.

“We need as much trade as we can and to be openly trading with as many places as we can,” Ben Johnson says. “It’s no different to any business – you want as many customers as you can. And to intentionally discourage them is frustrating.”

Neither Johnson nor his mother voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, largely because if his trade positions, they say. 

​Nothing that has happened since the election has eased Pam Johnson’s concerns.

“Saying that ‘I’m a tariff man’ and that ‘trade wars are easy to win’ concerns me,” she says, quoting comments the president has made. “There are still a lot of farmers who still support President Trump. I think there are more seeds of doubt being planted as we look forward into 2019 and no resolution and the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting dimmer about getting these things done.”

Politics aside, Pam Johnson admits success for her family business is closely tied to U.S. trade policy.

“I don’t want to see President Trump fail in these trade endeavors. We all need him to make this work so that all of us win,” she says.

A win her son Ben says can’t come soon enough.

“We’ve already missed the peak soybean export season, so in a way, it’s already too late… I guess it’s never too late, but before now would have been great,” he says.

While negotiations continue, the Trump administration says it is actively working on a new financial assistance program to help farmers weather the continuing trade storm.

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Trade War Sowing Seeds of Doubt in US Farmers

The ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China is having an impact on most farmers across the country. Their corn and soybean crops are subject to tariffs and increasing competition from other suppliers. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, U.S. farmers aren’t just concerned about their bottom lines this year. They’re also worried about the long term consequences of a trade war on the only business many have ever known.

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