If Tom Linebarger conducts business the way he talks about trade policy, I’d watch out for my wallet if I dealt with his company. Because recent remarks made by the Cummins Inc. Chairman and CEO about President Trump’s efforts to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) represent an unusually brazen example of snake-oil peddling.
In an interview with Politico‘s “Morning Trade,” Linebarger, whose firm is a leading manufacturer of diesel and natural gas engines and engine components, contended (in the reporter’s words) that “Although Trump believes differently, the United States is a much less attractive place for companies to invest if NAFTA no longer exists.”
In Linebarger’s view (and his own words), even if they’re only bargaining tactics, Mr. Trump’s threats to terminate the deal are “a terrible idea” because “Investors make decisions based on what they project is going to happen and one of the challenges in posturing with something of this nature is that people will begin to change their plans.”
“Not only would terminating NAFTA worsen the position of the U.S., but it causes multinational companies like mine to figure what’s the best way to position yourself for a world without NAFTA, which might mean changing manufacturing locations. Mexico has 44 free trade agreements. The U.S. has free trade agreements with 20 countries. So the very best way to sell to everybody else is to be in Mexico.”
But here’s what Linebarger didn’t tell Politico. First of all, according to Cummins’ latest annual report, more than half (54 percent) of all of the company’s net sales last year went to customers in the United States. The year before, it was 56 percent. Second, one of Cummins’ senior executives for Latin America stated publicly last month that all of Cummins’ Mexico engine production is exported, and that 80 percent goes to the United States. (The rest goes to the United Kingdom.)
So if Trump terminated NAFTA, and (as he has pledged) raised tariffs on Mexico-produced goods and services high enough to make the country unprofitable as an export platform, Cummins could lose nearly all of the customers for its four Mexico factories if it failed to return that production to the United States. It would also lose a big chunk of its total worldwide customers.
Of course, Linebarger, Cummins, and other footloose multinationals could always try to skirt those tariffs by producing for the American market in other countries. But that strategy could only succeed if the Trump administration simply sat back and did nothing about U.S. trade with any of these countries. And just this week, Washington served notice that it would respond to such production-shifting ploys by announcing stiff new tariffs on Chinese-made steel entering the American market from Vietnam.
In addition, the Latin America executive made clear that, despite Linebarger’s touting of Mexico’s non-U.S. trade deals, the company has made scarcely any use of them. And continuing U.S. domination of Cummins’ Mexico exports is all the more striking given that Mexico has been able to benefit from a free trade deal with the European Union (which the United Kingdom of course will be leaving) since late 2000, and from such an agreement with Japan since mid-2005. (Incidentally, counting all the EU countries separately is the only way the number of Mexico’s free trade agreements gets anywhere close to Linebarger’s 44.)
The only conclusions that can be drawn from the numbers: Either Linebarger is a complete incompetent and has failed to use Mexico as a supply base for dozens of promising non-U.S. markets, or he recognizes that Europe, Japan, and much of the rest of the world have little interest in importing advanced manufactured goods like those made by Cummins — or at least little interest in importing them from Mexico.
But let’s not ignore an equally important conclusion made clear by this piece: If journalists don’t stop simply taking at face value the claims of Offshoring Lobby mainstays like Linebarger, Americans will never have the kind of informed debate they need on trade and their place in the global economy.