Minutes before the close of a brutal trading day that saw the Dow dump more than 600 points, Bloomberg published a report that simultaneously stoked the worst fears of German carmakers and US investors who are desperately searching for a positive trade-related headline to reignite the rally. The headline sent shares of Ford and GM lower into the close.
The White House is circulating a draft report by the US Commerce Department about whether to impose Section 232 tariffs on automobile imports. The report, which is the latest sign that Trump's investigation into auto tariffs is moving forward, should offer an update on the status of the probe.
Trump ordered the investigation back in May under the same Trade Expansion Act provision that he used to justify the tariffs on steel and aluminum - though Commerce has until February to finish the probe.
Trump is planning to meet with his trade advisors and Commerce staff on Tuesday to discuss the report and car-import tariffs more generally, though it's unclear whether Trump will act soon on the tariffs, according to Bloomberg (Trump will likely abstain from more trade-related antagonisms until at least after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit later this year).
News of the activity on the trade front seems ill timed, considering that European Commission trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom is about to leave for Washington to meet with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for "exploratory" talks about a future free-trade agreement. Formal talks are expected to follow in January.
Still, automakers have good reason to be nervous. Despite the pleas of GM and Ford, who have said tariffs could seriously impact profitability and lead to thousands of job cuts, Trump has threatened 25% tariffs on imported cars while expressing frustrations with the US's European and Japanese trading partners. Governments and companies from Europe and Asia warned that the tariffs would disrupt the global automotive industry and hurt US growth during hearings in July.
Furthermore, Trump has exhibited more signs of his growing impatience, particularly regarding what he sees as an unfair trade relationship with Japan. At a press conference last week, he told a Japanese reporter to "say hello to Shinzo", referring to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, adding that "I’m sure he’s happy about tariffs on his cars."
"I tell him all the time that Japan does not treat the United States fairly on trade. They send in millions of cars at a very low tax. They don’t take our cars. And if they do, they have a massive tax on their cars," Trump added.
Furthermore, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Monday that Europe's avoidance of US car import tariffs might not last past the end of the year.
All of this is happening at a time when the downward spiral in US car sales continued in October after an already abysmal September.
And as if the situation in the US wasn't bad enough, Chinese car sales were also a disaster last month, meaning that global automakers, who rejoiced at China's promises for market liberalization, might need to find a new savior. But with the midterms now behind us, Trump is probably less concerned about the impact his trade policies might have on the market, given that the political pressure has been - at least temporarily - relieved.