U.S. auto import probe fans tariff fears, riles Asia, Europe carmakers

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(Reuters) – A Trump administration investigation of car and truck imports raised the threat on Thursday of renewed conflict over trade policy for an industry that thrives on stability and sent stocks in Asian and European automakers down.

Automobiles are on a truck for delivery to a car lot in Queens, New York, U.S., May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Thursday the investigation was still in its early stages but that other countries’ high, artificial barriers such as tariffs and other interventions have skewed the marketplace.

“Now it’s very difficult to get back to a reciprocal arrangement,” Ross said in an interview on CNBC, a day after announcing the investigation, which could lead to new U.S. tariffs on imported vehicles.

The probe, launched under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, will look at whether vehicle and parts imports are threatening the industry’s health and ability to research and develop advanced technologies, Ross said on Wednesday.

A similar investigation was the prelude to tariffs on steel and aluminum imposed earlier this year.

The probe comes ahead of midterm elections in the United States later this year and is seen as part of President Donald Trump’s “America First” promise to win back manufacturing jobs lost to overseas competitors.

U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said possible auto tariffs are “deeply misguided,” and urged the administration “to remain focused on addressing China’s trade practices.”

Pointing to a mixed bag of effects on U.S. producers after the metals tariffs, analysts were cautious about predicting major gains for U.S. companies and workers from the process.

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“Measures like this are ultimately about protecting American manufacturing jobs in states that voted for Trump rather than national security,” Morningstar analyst David Whiston said in a note.

“We don’t see these tariffs (if proposed) lasting forever and we think (they) will ultimately cost American jobs.”

Shares of General Motors Co (GM.N) rose nearly 1 percent and Ford Motor Co (F.N) was up 1.5 percent.

Higher tariffs could be particularly painful for Asian automakers including Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), Nissan Motor Co (7201.T), Honda Motor Co (7267.T) and Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS), which count the United States as a key market. The probe sparked a broad sell-off in automakers’ shares across the region. [MKTS/GLOB]

The governments of Japan, China and South Korea said they will monitor the situation, while Beijing, which is increasingly eyeing the United States as a potential market for its cars, added that it would defend its interests.

In Europe, BMW AG (BMWG.DE) and Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE) shares dropped as much as 3.5 percent, while Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) fell 2.4 percent. Together the three automakers control more than 90 percent of the North American premium auto market.

Renault (RENA.PA), exposed to the U.S. market via its 43.4 percent stake in Nissan, fell as much as 2.1 percent. Europe’s auto sector index .SXAP lost 2 percent and was on track for its worst day in 10 months.

Toyota dropped 3 percent and Honda slid 3.4 percent.

In addition to tariffs, Ross cited other non-tariff barriers such as standards, licensing and “all kinds of other games.”

“The stupidity is that we let ourselves get into this box of extremely low rates,” he told CNBC.

The United States imported 8.3 million vehicles in 2017 worth $192 billion, including 2.4 million from Mexico, 1.8 million from Canada, 1.7 million from Japan, 930,000 from South Korea and 500,000 from Germany, according to U.S. government statistics.

At the same time, the United States exported nearly 2 million vehicles worldwide worth $57 billion.

Reporting by David Shepardson, Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey in Washington, Rachit Vats in Bengalururu, Edward Taylor in Frankfurt and Laurence Frost in Paris, Esha Vaish in Stockholm and Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels; Writing by Susan Thomas; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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