The last few months have forced many global importers into a holding pattern as they wait for the latest round of tariff headlines. The March deadline has come and gone for 25% tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods, and the U.S. administration has said that talks are going well with China, putting additional increases on hold indefinitely. The 10% increases imposed last year are still in effect, however, and the U.S. has hinted they may stay in place, even if the two countries make a deal. Meanwhile, trade tensions continue to flare around the world, with news of $11 billion in potential tariffs on European Union products surfacing earlier this month.
These ongoing uncertainties are having a definite impact on the $6.5 billion in goods that come through U.S. ports each day. After breaking import records in a rush to stockpile inventory last year, businesses have slowed their pace so far in 2019. U.S. ports handled 1.62 million TEUs in February, down 14.3% from January and a 4% year-over-year decrease.
While import volumes for April and May are expected to top 2018 levels, much will depend on the ultimate results of U.S.-Chinese negotiations. If tariffs do rise to 25% on some goods, many shippers will need to make major adjustments to their sourcing and transit strategies to stay afloat. No matter where duties land, however, the current environment is making businesses more aware of the power of tariffs to shape the economy – and the importance of customs compliance. Whether you have an in-house brokerage team or rely on external support, these strategies can help your business stay strong amid tariff uncertainty.
• Go to the source. If your business has global production facilities, running what-if scenarios now can help you hit the ground running if massive tariff spikes require a shift in sourcing. An experienced supply chain partner can help you assess alternate transit routes and associated costs for moving production from China to Vietnam or Malaysia, for example. In addition, some shippers are turning to their vendors to handle clearance to mitigate the bite of tariffs – whatever those duties might be in six months.
• Double-check classifications. While many classifications, like tires, don’t leave much room for interpretation, businesses should still review all their harmonized tariff classifications if they haven’t done so recently. A customs brokerage expert can help confirm all classifications are correct, so you’re not paying tariffs unnecessarily or putting yourself at risk for fines for missing duties. Depending on your goods, there may also be opportunities to adjust your sourcing to items that aren’t eligible for duties.
• Stay on top of customs paperwork. Regardless of what the future brings for tariffs, the increased scrutiny on all U.S. imports is likely here to stay. Establishing a thorough auditing system can help your business avoid errors and fines, while cutting back on time-consuming post-summary corrections. Trading paper-based processes for automated systems can also help you improve compliance and overall efficiency.
While only time will tell whether more tariffs are in store, businesses that invest in a strong customs compliance program now will be better positioned to handle whatever comes next.