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Is ‘Made in China’ a Thing of the Past? What tariffs and trade relations mean for the consumer product industry.

According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, China is our largest goods trading partner with approximately $579 billion in total trade during 2016. Imports from China totaled $463 billion, resulting in a $347 billion U.S. trade deficit for the year. This deficit, along with the goal of bringing manufacturing jobs back home, has the President Trump contemplating high tariffs on Chinese and other imports, including those from another major trade partner – Mexico.

The World Trade Organization stipulates that tariffs can only be imposed when there is material injury to the domestic industry, such as the detrimental effects of currency manipulation. However, in the U.S. Treasury’s most recent semi-annual report, China was not found to be maintaining an artificially low Yuan. However, if the Treasury Department did designate China a currency manipulator, a one-year mandatory negotiation period would be required to attempt to resolve the problem. If unresolved, the U.S. could then retaliate by, among other actions, implementing the 45-percent tariff proposed by the Trump administration. However, given the current administration’s unconventional approach, tariffs could be levied – theoretically – without congressional approval.

The news media has been bombarding us with information on how this tariff will affect the auto industry, in particular, but what do increased tariffs mean for others – such as the consumer product industry? As it is commonplace for such products to be manufactured in China, if a product marketer chose to continue to manufacture in China after the implementation of a tariff, that $19.99 retail price could be pushed up to $28.99. Alternatively, rather than continuing to manufacture in China (and be subject to the threat of higher tariffs), the product marketer can choose to move its manufacturing to the U.S. or elsewhere.

There is no dispute that manufacturing is costlier in the U.S. than in China; that is why most manufacturing occurs overseas. However, in addition to current (underutilized) incentives, such as the Domestic Productions Activities Deduction, and export incentives including the Interest Charge Domestic Sales Corporation (IC-DISC), President Trump is promising to cut regulations and lower corporate taxes. This could, theoretically, make U.S. manufacturing a viable option. Further, should this tariff become a reality and manufacturing jobs do come home, it could significantly reduce the number of counterfeit products entering the country. This, perhaps, may be the biggest advantage to manufacturing in the U.S. or other countries that are not on the counterfeit watch list, such as Bangladesh or Vietnam.

As the product industry is fully aware, China is severely lagging in intellectual property protections. Product leaks (sometimes by the manufacturer or its employees) and subsequent infringement are rampant. A winning product is likely to be knocked off and/or counterfeited and selling on Alibaba and Amazon before it even hits the shelves.

The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property reported that China is responsible for as much as 80 percent of counterfeit goods globally. It is unquestionably the largest source of counterfeits in the United States. Global imports of counterfeit and pirated goods are worth nearly half a trillion dollars per year, with 20 percent of that affecting U.S. intellectual property and product owners. In 2013 alone, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (USCBP) seized $1.3 billion in counterfeit goods – and that’s just what was detected. Pulling manufacturing out of China would significantly reduce the ever-growing influx of counterfeit items into the country and around the world.

An organization’s ability to change and innovate quickly is a key competitive advantage. Similarly, its ability to anticipate and deal with change in a challenging environment is tantamount to survival. Any prudent business owner will need to do an analysis of alternative sources of supply, or renegotiate with suppliers for better pricing to offset increased tariffs and then decide the best course of action. Contact a knowledgeable attorney and seek professional accounting advice to conduct due diligence on the best options for your business.

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