Harley-Davidson Plans to Move Production Overseas in Latest Chapter of Trade Saga

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Source: Harley-Davidson

President Donald Trump will not be the first commander-in-chief to find that waging wars on multiple fronts is a strategy with significant drawbacks.

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Taking on America’s NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico, at the same time as the European Union is encouraging multiple retaliatory measures at a time when most people believe the real target was always intended to be China.

Many hold-up Caterpillar as the bellwether of U.S. industry, but if Caterpillar is the bellwether then Harley-Davidson must surely be the most iconic of American manufacturers. Its unique style of motorcycle is recognized and admired the world over and has come to epitomize the confident, free-spirited American dream.

So, when a firm like Harley-Davidson, which was repeatedly lauded by the president during his election campaign as an American icon and job creator, announces that it is going to have to shift production of its bikes overseas to avoid retaliatory tariffs imposed by the European Union, you have to ask if something is going a little wrong with the trade policy.

In a New York Times article, Harley-Davidson is quoted as saying the move “is not the company’s preference, but represents the only sustainable option to make its motorcycles accessible to customers in the E.U. and maintain a viable business in Europe.” Europe is the firm’s second-largest market after the U.S. However, as popular as its bikes are, the E.U.’s recently announced 31% import tariff — levied in retaliation for U.S. steel and aluminum import tariffs imposed by the president, the E.U. claimed — will, in the firm’s opinion, decimate sales.

Currently, Harley-Davidson incurs a 6% import tariff into the E.U., a cost the company appears comfortably able to absorb and still compete with domestic E.U. and Japanese motorcycle makers. But an increase to 31% would see on average a price increase of $2,200 per motorcycle, according to the article (although with the cheapest Sportster retailing for over $12,000 and top of the range models going for well over $20,000, that figure seems conservative).

Harley-Davidson agrees passing on the price increase to consumers is not viable. While no plans have been announced, the word is India may be the recipient of Milwaukee’s finest.

Not that India would be a significant market for Harley-Davidsons, as they have a heavy tax burden on larger bikes and you almost never see anything larger than the Royal Enfield 350 Bullit on the streets – the exception being the smart set in downtown Mumbai on their Ducatis and higher-end Japanese bikes (but that is still a small niche market).

Harley-Davidson sold 40,000 bikes in the E.U. last year and has vowed to absorb the tariff hike to preserve market share, at least for the remainder of this year, a move that could wipe out one-third of the company’s net profit. But Harley-Davidson does have options — it already manufactures in Brazil, Australia, India and Thailand, with India and Thailand becoming increasingly important assembly points.

These tariffs look set to hasten that trend, at least for sales outside of the U.S., as U.S. component costs rise due to import tariffs and retaliatory tariffs make U.S. manufactured goods less viable.

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Harley-Davidson is not alone in feeling the heat of such tariffs. Bourbon makers, orange juice producers and even playing card manufacturers are said to be in the same position.

But none are as quintessentially American as Harley-Davidson.

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