In a global world, many businesses based on the Gulf Coast deal and trade with partners far from home, either while importing materials or exporting goods. So as leaders in Washington and trade ministries around the globe wrestle over the issue of tariffs, stakes are high for some companies in Sarasota and Manatee.Will companies be helped or hurt by changes in U.S. trade policies? It depends largely on their business model. But to date, the greatest impact is the anxiety of uncertainty.

Peter Straw, executive director of the Sarasota-Manatee Manufacturers Association, says business leaders around the Gulf Coast have closely watched how the Trump Administration changes tariff policies. “Anyone who uses steel is concerned about material cost,” he says. But on the flipside, other businesses have hope. “Those who produce finished goods," says Straw, "are potentially going to benefit from being more competitive with imports."

ILLUSTRATION BY WOODY WOODMAN.

In March, President Donald Trump imposed a 25-percent tariff on steel imports and a 10-percent tariff on aluminum from all nations except Canada and Mexico. Since the United States is the world’s largest importer of steel, bringing in 7.9 million metric tons a year, that means a hefty price hike in materials.

Since that time, prices have indeed jumped for local metal importers. Mike Reed of Alro Metals Outlet says that, immediately after the announcement of tariffs, the price for steel jumped. The bulk of steel imported by Alro Metals comes from Turkey, Vietnam and South Korea. “The cost is jumping around quite a bit,” Reed says. But steel gets purchased in bulk by corporate negotiators in Michigan, so the impact of the tariffs isn’t necessarily a 25-percent hike in price.

The Trump administration has also put in tariffs on products like solar panels, which had a 30-percent duty put in place in January. That’s impacted the supply chain for Brilliant Harvest, a solar company based in Sarasota, though system designer Garrett Savadel says the cost passed on to consumers varies from project to project. “It may be possible we've gotten less projects greenlit, but that’s a hard thing to quantify,” he says.

Already, some solar buyers request Brilliant Harvest to only purchase American products, so the company has some suppliers who manufacture panels in China and others that build product in Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County. It’s historically saved money to import goods, and the prices of low-end solar systems jumped by about 20 percent after tariffs first went into effect, Savadel says, but that spike has dropped after the initial shock. Today, systems cost 10 to 15 percent more than they did a year ago.

“We pick our materials based on quality and price regardless of where they are made,” Savadel says. “Foreign panels, even with tariffs, are cheaper than the American ones.”

And that’s incidentally why the Trump administration has pursued tariffs so aggressively. The president this summer said the World Trade Organization prevented a fair playing field for US manufacturers. And numerous countries complaining about new tariffs in the United States actually charge on imports themselves. But the implementation of tariffs has led to other nations responding in kind, sparking fears of a trade war. Agriculture providers have been hurt hard, especially soy farmers in the Midwest.  

Trump says the new tariffs should give the United States leverage to renegotiate trade agreements with nations around the globe. “Either a country which has treated the United States unfairly on Trade negotiates a fair deal, or it gets hit with Tariffs. It’s as simple as that,” he tweeted in July. “Remember, we are the ‘piggy bank’ that’s being robbed.”

And so far, the Trump administration has lifted tariffs on an increasing number of nations that have re-opened trade talks with the U.S., particularly nations in South America. At Port Manatee, which deals largely with imports and exports to South America, that has meant little pain. About 80 percent of the goods coming in and out of the Palmetto port come from Latin America and the Caribbean, and few of those goods pay a tariff, according to the executive director, Carlos Buqueras.

“The commodities we bring in are exempted or not subject to tariffs,” Buqueras says. The 1 billion bananas imported to the port from South America don’t face a tariff. Same for the 48 million pineapples shipped into the port. Plenty of aluminum comes to Port Manatee, but it comes predominantly from Argentina, a nation that in May struck a deal with the U.S. Commerce Department to be added to the list of nations exempt from tariffs on the metal. Brazil struck a similar deal, so lumber from that country doesn’t pay a duty either.

The port also does about 10 to 15 percent of its business with sources in Europe, but, for the moment, that business has been unaffected. “At least for now, any effect of the tariffs in reducing the amount of imports or affecting jobs has not been felt,” Buqueras says. He doesn’t want to see tariffs expanded in a way that affects business at the port, but so far it’s been a non-issue.

And there’s some question as to how much tariffs will guide U.S. policy. After a July meeting between Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, both leaders announced a suspension of all non-auto industry related tariffs for both the United States and the European Union. That should ease concern about those in the agriculture industry, though it leaves metal tariffs in place.

However, the real competitors in terms of aluminum and steel remain in Asia, in countries like Russia, China and South Korea. Cheap labor and ample supply there continues to allow competitive pricing with makers of metal goods in the United States, even with the high taxes.

And then there’s the political debate. The Trump administration has taken heavy criticism, including from members of his own party. In March, 107 Republican lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, urged the president to reconsider the hefty duties on steel and aluminum. “Because tariffs are taxes that make U.S. businesses less competitive and U.S. consumers poorer, any tariffs that are imposed should be designed to address specific distortions caused by unfair practices in a targeted way,” the letter reads. The lawmakers specifically ask that the “broad tariffs” put in place by the president by reconsidered.

And Democrats boast few fans of tariffs these days either. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, says Trump’s tariffs could launch the nation into a new recession. “The prices of a lot of consumer goods we buy from overseas are going to rocket up,” he said, going so far as to credit U.S. tariffs in the 1930s with sparking the Great Depression. For now, though, tariffs remain a policy less than a year old and one where the ground keeps shifting, The U.S. in the second quarter actually saw 4-percent growth in its gross domestic product, so broader backlash has yet to be felt.

At least for now, those like Reed will weather the price fluctuations and see how things shake out with tariffs. “I know they [the Trump administration] are just trying to get trade to be a little more fair,” he says. “If tariffs bring that about, fine. If not, they could be bad. We don’t know yet.”