A steady drumbeat of tariffs, changing trade policy and an overall environment of uncertainty are leading many manufacturers to take a “wait and see” approach to investment and expansion. Companies are reassessing spending plans, finding it challenging to adjust how they do business on the fly in response to unsettled trade policies.
Manufacturers have seen the effects in the cost of raw materials, which has led customers with long-term pricing agreements to push back. Some are finding they need to negotiate changes to contract terms, while others are faced with locating new supply sources. However, these are difficult changes to make, and companies are unsure whether to push forward as uncertainty over tariff amounts, origin, timing and related retaliation persists.
As a result, manufacturers are hesitant to commit to large investments or expansion plans unless they can be certain they’ll see a long-term payoff. Whether manufacturers need to change their supply chain strategy, find alternative sourcing or re-source materials, they don’t feel confident implementing these initiatives without more evidence of stability in trade policy.
While the next round of tariffs may be out of manufacturers’ control, they can be proactive in preparing for changing trade policies by considering these steps to weather the storm:
Renegotiate rates with suppliers
Even if a manufacturer’s products aren’t direct tariff targets, they may include affected materials like steel and aluminum, resulting in higher cost of goods and materials. Now is the time to renegotiate terms with suppliers and try to lock them into long-term deals with favorable pricing. It may be easier said than done in many cases, particularly in cases where suppliers are using the assessment of new tariffs as an opportunity to raise prices. It’s critical manufacturers incorporate key protection clauses to avoid major price spikes that would be damaging to their business model when entering into an amended, extended or new supply contract.
Evaluate profit margins
With tariffs increasing the costs of goods and materials, it’s imperative for manufacturers to examine which costs they can absorb and which they’ll need to pass on to customers. This process involves understanding where a manufacturer might offset material cost increases with other efficiencies or cost rationalization, and the level of cost increase customers will tolerate. In customer contracts that have price escalation clauses or limitations, manufacturers may need to attempt to renegotiate clauses that prevent recovery of tariffs paid.
Consider free-trade zone opportunities
Too often, manufacturers overlook available opportunities provided by free-trade zones. The free-trade zone option allows companies to develop a product, then export it to a U.S. customs territory or foreign destination, potentially bypassing any tariffs on the product if it has been transformed.
Establish a dedicated trade and customs compliance group
Consider forming a trade compliance group with clear governance. Charge this group with developing strong “what-if” capabilities to understand the impact of various tariff and trade scenarios, including inventory and supply chain strategies, sourcing alternatives and modeling multiple data sources.
Take advantage of exclusion processes
When granted, exclusions apply retroactively to the date a tariff became effective. The Commerce Department reviews exclusion requests for Section 232 Steel and Aluminum tariffs, while the United States Trade Representative (USTR) provides a mechanism to request exclusions for Section 301 (China) tariffs. The Commerce Department has shown a willingness to provide exemptions in certain cases, particularly since March when the tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum went into effect, making it all the more important for manufacturers to evaluate opportunities for exclusions.
Assess imported product classifications
Each product’s classification dictates whether or not it is included in the tariff order. Whether there is an accidental misclassification, an intentional misclassification by the overseas seller or a product that falls within a gray area, an audit of the classifications of imported goods will help manufacturers elude surprises and potential liabilities – and could even result in the avoidance of higher tariffs.
Import sooner versus later
Manufacturers with source material subject to the 10 percent tariff may want to procure more before the tariff leaps to 25 percent.
Seek out alternative sources of supply
Manufacturers should explore alternate supply sources to shield their business from the disruption caused by tariffs. They should be prepared to onboard new supply partners quickly – a process that might include partner profiles, legacy systems, custom coding and new systems to securely exchange order, invoicing, shipping and payment data.
Time will tell the extent to which new tariffs and trade policy will impact the manufacturing industry. Regardless of today’s uncertainty, manufacturers should take steps now to prepare and protect their business interests amid the shifting trade environment.