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GM warns Trump tariffs could lead the carmaker to shrink in the U.S.

GM warns Trump tariffs could lead the carmaker to shrink in the U.S.
Stephen Carpenter works on an SUV at the General Motors plant in Arlington, Texas. (Kye R. Lee / McClatchy-Tribune)

General Motors Co. issued a stern warning to the Trump administration that it could shrink U.S. operations and cut jobs if tariffs are broadly applied to imported vehicles and auto parts.

“Increased import tariffs could lead to a smaller GM, a reduced presence at home and risk less — not more — U.S. jobs,” the nation’s largest automaker said in comments submitted Friday to the Commerce Department.

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That such a blunt statement came from GM — a company run by a chief executive, Mary Barra, whose normal tack is to avoid the political fray and let trade groups address the president’s policies — was surprising to industry observers. And it underscored how high she, and many industrial leaders, believe the stakes are as the president sinks the U.S. into tit-for-tat trade squabbles around the globe. GM’s public pronouncement follows similar moves by Harley-Davidson Inc., Toyota Motor Corp. and Daimler AG.

The “comment suggests how severe the impact would be to GM, its employees and consumers," said Michelle Krebs, analyst with AutoTrader.com. "There is a lot at stake for GM, the auto industry and the overall economy."

President Trump ordered an investigation of whether auto imports pose national security risks last month under a section of the same 1960s trade law used to impose levies on steel and aluminum. The administration is said to be considering auto tariffs of as much as 25%.

The probe has raised alarm among manufacturers, parts suppliers and auto retailers because all major carmakers — including GM and Ford Motor Co. — import a substantial share of the vehicles they sell in the U.S. from other countries. Levies on parts also would have major implications for top models such as the Ford F-150 pickup and Toyota Camry sedan by boosting prices by thousands of dollars.

GM’s stock price fell 2.8% — to $39.40 — in New York, and has now posted three straight weekly declines, the longest such streak since March.

The White House didn’t immediately comment on GM’s remarks.

GM’s message came as a surprise because the company has kept close contact with the Trump administration, James Albertine, analyst with Consumer’s Edge Research told Bloomberg TV.

"So this came as a little bit of a shock to us,” he said, “as we thought they were working more along the lines of making sure the administration knows the severity of the impact tariffs would have."

Barra had earlier tried to stay on good terms with Trump. She continued to serve on his Strategic and Policy Forum even after many other CEOs, such as Walt Disney’s Bob Iger and Tesla’s Elon Musk, quit to protest Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement last year. The forum was disbanded in August following Trump’s tepid response to attacks by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.

Now, the Detroit-based maker of Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC vehicles is warning that additional tariffs — on top of those recently slapped on steel, aluminum and Chinese products — could hurt GM and ultimately its customers. Higher prices would crimp sales, particularly to less-affluent consumers, and reduce the number of factory workers needed, it said.

If GM were to try to absorb the additional costs, it would have less money to invest in popular vehicles that sustain manufacturing jobs, or toward pivotal technologies including electric and self-driving cars.

“The threat of steep tariffs on vehicle and auto component imports risks undermining GM’s competitiveness against foreign auto producers by erecting broad-brush trade barriers that increase our global costs, remove a key means of competing with manufacturers in lower-wage countries, and promote a trade environment in which we could be retaliated against in other markets,” the company said.

GM’s Chevrolet Silverado pickup was the top-selling model imported from Mexico last year, while the Chevrolet Equinox crossover was the leading vehicle sourced from Canada, according to LMC Automotive.

Just last week, GM announced plans to bring back the Chevy Blazer SUV later this year. The iconic American brand will be built at a plant in Mexico, a move that sparked angry comments from the United Auto Workers union. In its response, the UAW said that GM sells 80% of its Mexican-made vehicles in the U.S.

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“GM imports a lot of pickup trucks from Mexico, so it’s a huge issue,” said Alan Baum, an auto analyst in West Bloomfield, Mich. “And for parts, it’s not just GM. Everyone imports a lot of electronics from Asia. Those are are high-value parts.”

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