Business News

Here's why export tariffs have some small business owners on edge

Key Points
  • As the threat of a trade war continues to loom, Main Street businesses across industries and political leanings are beginning to feel the potential ramifications.
  • Small business advocates have been mixed on the tariffs.
  • The White House says actions taken by the president will benefit the economy.
Jason Duff, based in Bellefontaine, Ohio, says he’s already seeing price increases in the wake of steel and aluminum import tariffs. But, he supports the President’s goal of evening the playing field when it comes to trade.
Source: John Riley

As the threat of a trade war continues to loom, Main Street businesses across industries and political leanings are beginning to feel the potential ramifications.

For Alice Reed, a fallout with China might mean make or break for the farm that's been in her family for more than 100 years. Off the Grid! Reed's Green Growers, based in Lincoln, Nebraska, grows corn and soybeans and relies on an export partnership with China. A 25 percent tariff levied on soybeans by the world's largest economy has her on edge, at a time when she says the agricultural economy at home is already struggling.

"We are pretty afraid," Reed says. "Corn prices have dropped in the past few years, and this soybean tariff will make our bottom line drop even further. It puts our family farm in peril — we will be in big trouble paying for our property taxes, paying for the seed and fertilizers. Our business will be in jeopardy."

Reed says she supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election cycle, fearful of what President Donald Trump's policies might mean for Main Street. As a farmer in a red state, she was outnumbered — surrounded by others who believed his ideals would revive American business.

"Now they're starting to wonder if this is really going to happen, or if we will be in big trouble," Reed says of her fellow farmers. "We are a small business, we stand for American ways, and we sure hoped that he would help out the small guy instead of harming us. We are hurting down here.

"We hope he can come through and help us," she says of Trump.

The premise of evening the playing field in trade relations was one of the reasons independent voter Jason Duff says he supported the president in 2016. The owner of Bellefontaine Ohio Properties Ltd. invests in and renovates small businesses in his company's namesake town. He felt Trump would fight for American businesses.

"My initial response to the tariffs was that I'm pleased that we're trying to balance things out. In 2017 we had a trade deficit of $375 billion with China — that's a lot of money," Duff said.

But in the wake of the 25 percent tariffs on steel and 10 percent tariffs on aluminum the Trump administration imposed last month on certain products, Duff said he's already seeing price increases from vendors, making planning ahead more difficult.

"Our whole business is a short-term challenge. We want to see things to be fairer, we also want to see manufacturing jobs come back to places like my town in Ohio," he said. "We also appreciate certainty, but right now there is greater uncertainty in the market, and it's difficult for me to plan and take initiative, and take on risk in doing future projects."

Lindsay Walters, White House deputy press secretary, said in a statement, "China's unfair trade practices are an enormous threat to the long-term health of the American economy and they have been especially harmful to small businesses. ... In the long run, the actions taken by the USTR and the President will benefit the entire U.S. economy by ending China's predatory practices, including forced technology transfer, the theft of intellectual property, and import substation policies designed to take away market share from foreigners."

Meanwhile, small business advocates have been mixed on the tariffs. The conservative lobbying group the National Federation of Independent Business found trade and exporting in particular ranked number 75 out of 75 issues polled in its latest "Problems and Priorities" poll from 2016. But the nonpartisan National Small Business Association and the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council have been more pointed in criticizing Trump's policies. In fact, the SBE Council recently testified before Congress urging for free trade and the "strengthening, not undermining" of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

As the political back and forth on tariffs continues, Duff says he is watching "every penny" his small business spends. Back in Lincoln, Reed says they're hopeful, but bracing for the worst.

"We are hoping that things get better and that this cycle goes away instead of increases. Usually, the farm economy is the first to feel these effects, and we are going to feel it here at home," she says.