US importers say new tire tariffs will harm consumers

Akron, Ohio – Most companies potentially affected by the United Steelworkers’ petitions for import duties on passenger and light truck tires from South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam are, for now, reserving comment on the issue. Those who did comment, however, focused on a couple of issues: higher prices for consumers and their own long-term heritage of service to US consumers. Tariffs on tires imported from the targeted countries would be “bad for the consumer and for our overall economy,” said Greg Hathcock, president of Vogue Tyre & Rubber Co.

Hathcock noted the similarities to the union’s action in 2009–when the US under the Obama administration elevated import duties on Chinese passenger and light truck tires for three years. “It will result in higher tire prices without generating new jobs,” he said. The 2009-11 action is estimated to have cost consumers more than £1.1 billion (EUR1 billion) in price increases and other costs while saving approximately 1,200 jobs at US tire factories (at a cost of £926,000 per job), according to Hathcock. At the same time, he said, the moves eliminated approximately 2,500 retail jobs across all industries due to reduced consumer buying power.

Vogue Tyre sources tires from both China and Vietnam after trying unsuccessfully several years ago to secure sourcing in the US. Maxxis International said that as a company that has always prioritised the needs of consumers, it is “dismayed” by the USW’s petition. “If the requested duties are imposed, supply chains for Maxxis and all other tire companies operating in the US will be strained, leading to negative effects for consumers at an already challenging time,” the Suwanee, Ga.-based subsidiary of Taiwan’s Cheng Shin Rubber/Maxxis International said.

Maxxis said it “will be glad to cooperate with this investigation, and will provide documentation of the fact that we have never engaged in the activities described in the petition. … Our trade practices have been fair and ethical throughout our US operation, and we have scrupulously followed the law at all times.” Maxxis has been importing tires into the US for more than 35 years.

Its presence here includes four distribution centers, a technical center and a tire/wheel assembly plant. Hankook Tire America Corp. said it’s still early at this stage in the process, before anything concrete has been decided, according to Peter Jung, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Hankook Tire America. Hankook likely will work with the Korea Tire Manufacturers Association (KOTMA) in preparing for the upcoming hearings, Jung said, because the USW’s action concerns all South Korean tire companies.

If the US were to impose duties, Jung said Hankook would be able to reorganise its global production portfolio and increase US plant production to meet US stakeholder demands. As for KOTMA itself, the Seoul, South Korea-based trade group said its member companies have started to establish countermeasures, such as selecting consulting companies for accounting and legal advice. KOTMA also is trying to seek ways of assisting the member companies through having related meetings with them and sharing related information with the government.

Joe Kao, operations manager at Federal Tire North America, said he isn’t concerned about the potential duties yet. “We don’t believe there is a high risk for us as our export numbers didn’t surge, and our average pricing has been going up,” Kao said. “Besides, there’s no government subsidy, so countervailing should not be applicable. We are confident and hopeful and will be going through the standard filing process.”

Richard Kuskin, president of tire importer/wholesale distributor Foreign Tire Sales Inc., said there are only two areas in the world with sufficient manufacturing capacity to meet the demand for tires in the US–China and Southeast Asia. Kuskin–whose company represents Thai tire maker Otani Tire Co. Ltd.–said, depending on the scale of import duties imposed (50% or higher, for example), the action could open the door for some Chinese companies to reconsider supplying the US.

This new action by the USW is “escalating the cat-and-mouse game” between the world’s major tire producers and the more cost-effective–but “quality varied” Chinese brands–to a whole new level, according to Mike Cheng, head of TBB Tires, the US subsidiary of China’s Jiangsu General Science Technology Co. Ltd., which recently opened a plant in Thailand. Cheng acknowledged that tire supply also is considered a strategic issue that can’t be left solely in the hands of foreign entities, as the recent crisis on personal protection equipment demonstrated.

“The question is, ‘What’s next?’ We have literately run out of countries that are either stable enough to invest in and to operate a tire factory efficiently,” Cheng said. TBB Tires’ answer consists of three things, he said: quality, service and price. A tariff, he said, regardless of how much it is elevated, ultimately will end up as one thing: cost.

“Every customer wants the lowest price but the highest in everything else. Most companies see price as the only factor of business because it’s what everyone complains (about) the most.” Roy Littlefield, CEO of the Tire Industry Association, said the petition filed by the USW is an indication of the tire industry’s growth and evolution.

This is evident, he said, by the investments tire makers have made in China and Southeast Asia. “The union, in seeking antidumping and countervailing duties, is looking to preserve tire manufacturing jobs in the US, while tire retailers have found success selling products imported from these countries,” Littlefield said. “It’s not surprising, therefore, to see this action taken by the USW.” Companies and groups declining comment when contacted by Tire Business were: American Omni Trading Co.; Kenda Tire USA Inc.; Kumho Tire USA Inc.; Tire Brands America; Nexen Tire Corp.; and the US Tire Manufacturers Association.

In addition, at least four companies have notified the ITC of their intention to participate in the investigation process: Atturo Tire Corp.; Bridgestone Americas Inc.; ITG-Voma Corp.; and Sumitomo Rubber North America Inc.

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