Trump's tariff threat on European cars could spell big trouble for Germany

  • The war of words between President Donald Trump and the EU could lead to some serious pressure on the German auto industry, one expert told CNBC.
  • Trump threatened via Twitter on Saturday to hit back at any tariff measures from the European Union — floated in response to Trump's recently announced global steel import tariffs — in kind, targeting European cars.
  • Additional duties on German imports into the U.S. in particular cold be "quite severe" for the industry, as Germany's carmakers are "very, very exposed," according to the analyst.

The war of words between President Donald Trump and the EU could lead to some serious pressure on the German auto industry, one expert told CNBC.

Trump threatened via Twitter on Saturday to hit back at any tariff measures from the European Union — floated in response to Trump's recently announced global steel import tariffs — in kind. The billionaire businessman's potential next target? European cars. And the biggest victim of them all may be Germany.

"It would be quite severe if we were to face additional import duties to ship the cars into the U.S. — the Germans in particular are very, very exposed," Arndt Ellinghorst, the head of global automotive research for advisory firm Evercore ISI, told CNBC Monday.

He noted the example of BMW, which sells about 350,000 cars in the U.S. annually, roughly 70 percent of which come from Europe. "That's probably an $8 billion to $9 billion revenue stream, if you put a 5 to 10 percent additional cost on it, it would cost something like $400 million to $800 million. Some of that would be absorbed by the company, and some of it would have to be absorbed by the consumer in the U.S."

Ellinghorst did add that cars being shipped from the U.S. into Europe faced a 10 percent import duty while European cars into the U.S. faced a 2.5 percent import duty. "I think what the administration is talking about is to balance out this difference in tariffs to make it more of an equal playing ground for American and European carmakers," he said.

Out of roughly six million cars exported by Europe in 2016, more than one million were absorbed by the U.S. — just over 16 percent — its largest country market by a wide margin. Meanwhile, of America's $53.6 billion in car exports that same year, the value of its car exports into Europe was $11.8 billion, or roughly 22 percent of the total, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

The U.S. is the third-largest car exporter globally after Germany and Japan, accounting for 7.7 percent of total world exports. It ran a trade deficit of more than $151 billion overall with Europe in 2017.

Fears of a trade war

Tensions between the U.S. and its longtime trade partners and allies spiked last week after Trump announced a sweeping 25 percent tariff on all foreign steel imports and 10 percent on all aluminum imports, sparking international condemnation and fears of trade war.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker responded by suggesting the EU raise tariffs on iconic American products popular in Europe like Harley Davidson motorcycles, Kentucky bourbon and Levi's jeans. On Saturday, Trump hit back by threatening to hit car exports from the EU with a retaliatory tax.

Experts have sounded the alarm on the risks of retaliatory measures and their threat to global growth if the Trump move triggers tit-for-tat responses from other countries. Trump's tweet was evidence of the president's willingness to double down when confronted by trade allies on his protectionist move.

German cars, American jobs

Trump in 2017 referred to Germany as "bad, very bad" for its millions of cars sold in the U.S., vowing to support greater sales if American car brands manufactured domestically.

Germany's carmakers responded by pointing out that German and European carmakers are major investors in the U.S. In 2017, German automakers alone were invested in 265 plants across the country and employed approximately 110,000 American workers.

According to Germany's Association of the Automotive Industry, Germans produced 854,000 vehicles in the U.S. in 2016, a four-fold increase in about seven years. More than 60 percent of those were exported to foreign markets.

A worker performs the final check of a BMW 3-series automobile on the production line, March 11, 2009.
Guenter Schiffmann | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A worker performs the final check of a BMW 3-series automobile on the production line, March 11, 2009.

There are, however, at least 10 major European carmakers who sell in the U.S. but do not produce there — these reportedly include the U.K.'s Land Rover and Jaguar as well as Audi and Porsche. Sweden's Volvo manufactured 6 percent of its cars in the U.S. in 2016.

European carmakers staying quiet

European carmakers have been mostly quiet following Trump's tweet Saturday, with German manufacturer Daimler issuing no comment when contacted by CNBC and Volvo saying it was too early to comment.

A spokesperson for McLaren Automotive said: "While North America is our biggest single market, as a luxury-automotive brand who retails in well over 30 markets, our long-standing policy is to balance our sales globally."

Toyota Europe declined to discuss the tweet, explaining that it was not yet policy, but Toyota Motor North America issued a warning on Trump's tariff announcement regarding steel and aluminum imports.

"...The majority of the steel and aluminum we directly purchase is from right here in the U.S.," Toyota said. "Nonetheless, the administration's decision to impose substantial steel and aluminum tariffs will adversely impact automakers, the automotive supplier community and consumers as this would substantially raise costs and therefore prices of cars and trucks sold in America."