U.S. Commerce chief says timing of auto tariffs depends on talks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Tuesday that possible tariffs on automakers are aimed at pushing companies to make more cars and other vehicles in the United States and the timing of any duties would depend on the success of ongoing negotiations.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross answers questions during an interview with Reuters in his office at the U.S. Department of Commerce building in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

“It’s a very, very important component of the European situation,” Ross told CNBC in an interview. “If we don’t fix the auto and auto part trade deficit and the Chinese trade deficit, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

“The timing of this whole thing will largely be driven by what happens in negotiations,” Ross said. “China, we don’t really import very much in the way of cars but we do import some parts.”

“It’s a very, very complicated picture but we’re moving along at a very deliberate and very orderly pace,” he added.

European automakers are to meet with senior administration officials later Tuesday as the United States considers slapping tariffs on European-made cars. Top executives at Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) and Daimler <AG DAIGn.DE> are set to attend, according to the White House.

Over the weekend U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on a temporary truce in the two countries’ trade war but there were conflicting statements over whether Beijing was lifting retaliatory tariffs imposed on cars made in the United States.

Trump said on Sunday that China had agreed to cut import levies on American-made cars. But Chinese media reported Tuesday that Beijing was considering curbing tariffs on U.S.-made cars but gave no details about the extent or timing.

Asked about the Commerce Department’s analysis on whether to impose a 25 percent tariff on European vehicles, Ross said its report was undergoing normal review.

Domestically, the administration was grappling with the political aftermath of General Motors Co’s (GM.N) announcement last week that it will close five plants in North America, including in the United States, and slash 15,000 jobs.

Trump has threatened to eliminate U.S. subsidies for GM, such as tax credits for their electric vehicles, and said new auto tariffs that could prevent such closures were being studied.

On Monday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the Trump administration wants to end subsidies for electric cars.

Ross told CNBC it was important to keep a lot of electric car manufacturing in the United States.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox Business Network on Tuesday he hoped GM could find other uses for the U.S. factories it is closing.

Automakers have warned for months that U.S. tariffs would cost jobs and raise prices and several have said they are worried that GM’s closures could prompt Trump to impose auto tariffs more quickly.

Additional reporting by Yilei Sun in China; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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