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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with leaders of the steel industry at the White House March 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/GettyImages
President Trump speaks during a meeting with leaders of the steel industry at the White House March 1, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Allies retaliate with tariffs

Mexico will levy duties on everything from flat steel to cheese; Canada will impose tariffs of as much as $12.8 billion.

by Andrew Mayeda, Jenny Leonard and Joe Deaux

America’s closest allies plan to slap billions of dollars in tit-for-tat tariffs on U.S. goods after the Trump administration announced it’s imposing steel and aluminum duties on them.

The reaction was swift after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the U.S. starting Friday will levy duties on the imported metals from the European Union, Mexico and Canada, ending their temporary exemptions. 

The EU said it would take immediate steps to retaliate, while Mexico vowed to impose duties on everything from U.S. flat steel to cheese. Canada’s government said it will impose tariffs on as much as C$16.6 billion ($12.8 billion) of U.S. steel, aluminum and other products from July 1. The allies said their countermeasures are of proportionate scale to the U.S. actions.

The decision marks the administration’s most aggressive trade action yet against major U.S. trading partners, which had been fighting for permanent relief. The EU, Canada and Mexico together account for about 40% of U.S. steel imports. 

“This is a bad day for world trade,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Brussels after the announcement. “It’s totally unacceptable that a country is imposing unilateral measures when it comes to world trade.”

Worries are mounting about the prospect of a trade war as the Trump administration also considers tariffs on U.S. auto imports -- which could hit top suppliers from Mexico, Canada, Japan and Germany -- and plans to levy duties on $50 billion in Chinese goods.

The rising trade tensions come as Group of Seven finance ministers including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and central bank governors prepare to meet in the Canadian resort town of Whistler this week. Growing trade tensions have clouded a benign outlook for the global economy, which is on track to grow at its fastest pace since 2011 this year and next, according to the International Monetary Fund. 

Secretary Ross said there wasn’t enough progress in discussions with the EU over trade concessions and Canada and Mexico on rewriting the North American Free Trade Agreement to give them permanent exemptions from the metals tariffs. 

Ross said he’s looking forward to “continued negotiations” with Canada, Mexico and the EU to resolve their issues. There’s potential “flexibility” in the future because the president has the power to increase or cut tariffs, remove them, or enact quotas, he said.

“We continue to be quite willing and eager to have further discussions with all of those parties,” Ross told reporters on Thursday. “We are awaiting their reaction.”

Stocks in the U.S. fell as the administration ignored pleas from business lobbying groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to forgo tariffs. The shares of major American steel producers, which have supported the tariffs, rose on Thursday’s news. Nucor Corp., the biggest U.S. steel producer, were up 0.4% at 2:32 p.m. in New York.

The EU has indicated it could target $3.3 billion in American products from Harley-Davidson Inc. motorcycles to Levi Strauss & Co.’s jeans as well as bourbon. Both the EU and Canada said they intend to proceed with a case at the World Trade Organization against the U.S. import restrictions.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau characterized the U.S. measures as “punitive” and “unacceptable.”

“These tariffs will harm industry and workers on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, disrupting linked supply chains that have made North American steel and aluminum more competitive around the world,” Trudeau said.

Auto Probe

The steel and aluminum levies and auto-import probe could play well with Trump voters in Rust Belt states in the lead-up to congressional midterms in November. But the tariffs aren’t popular among pro-trade lawmakers in Trump’s own Republican Party. 

“Tariffs on steel and aluminum imports are a tax hike on Americans and will have damaging consequences for consumers, manufacturers and workers,” said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Finance Committee, which oversees trade in the upper chamber.

In imposing the tariffs, President Donald Trump invoked a seldom-used section of a 1960s trade law that allows him to erect trade barriers when imports imperil national security. Trump in March imposed 25 percent duties on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum, but he gave temporary reprieve to a handful of allies for further talks to take place.

The action was mainly targeted at China over accusations of flooding the global market with cut-rate metals and dragging down prices. The Trump administration has said a global tariff is necessary because China is shipping its steel through other nations.

Positive Effects

The White House said in a statement Thursday that those tariffs have already had “major, positive effects” on steel and aluminum workers. 

Ross played down the potential negative impact on the U.S. economy from the duties. “For the economy overall, it’s just a very small fraction of 1%,” he said in an interview on CNBC.

Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska drew a parallel between Trump’s tariffs and trade protectionism during the Great Depression.

"This is dumb,” Sasse said in an emailed statement. “Europe, Canada, and Mexico are not China, and you don’t treat allies the same way you treat opponents. We’ve been down this road before -- blanket protectionism is a big part of why America had a Great Depression. Make America Great Again shouldn’t mean Make America 1929 Again.”

--With assistance from Jonathan Stearns, Eric Martin, Josh Wingrove and Terrence Dopp.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew Mayeda in Washington at amayeda@bloomberg.net; Jenny Leonard in Washington at jleonard67@bloomberg.net; Joe Deaux in New York at jdeaux@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Murray at brmurray@bloomberg.net

Sarah McGregor, Randall Woods

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P

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