Trade tensions loom over Missouri economy
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Missouri Influencer Series
Brooks Hurst, a fifth-generation farmer in northwest Missouri, is headed to Washington this month. He wants the growing pressure on farmers that comes with trade tensions to stop.
“A trade war is not something we look forward to," he said, and that's the message he'll take to Missouri's congressional delegation.
Hurst, president of the Missouri Soybean Association, grows corn and soybeans on 6,000 acres near Tarkio, just miles from the Nebraska and Iowa state lines. He and other farmers are watching with trepidation as growing trade tensions that pit the U.S. against Canada, Mexico, China and the European Union threaten to upend agriculture and other industries.
It's not quite clear yet how hard trade tensions will hit Missouri, so people like Hurst watch and wait.
The Star asked the Missouri Influencers, its panel of dozens of leaders from across the state, for their thoughts on trade and tariffs after readers said the potential effect on Missouri businesses, farmers and consumers was their No. 1 economic concern.
President Donald Trump has levied or threatened tariffs against Missouri's three largest trading partners.
"Missouri jobs and industries can't become the collateral damage of Trump's global trade strategies," said Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College and one of the Influencers. "While we wait for Beijing to blink, our political leadership needs to develop programs to stabilize our local markets and protect Missouri's economic interests."
Lynch, who ranked trade and tariffs as her most important economic issue, urged leaders to "negotiate, legislate and coordinate with other Farm Belt legislators" to avoid a trade war.
Fellow Influencer Richard Martin, director of governmental affairs for JE Dunn Construction and a former political consultant, said trade disruption upsets local economies and policymakers should put pressure on the Trump administration.
"First, they need to understand that in a trade war, everyone loses," he said.
The Missouri Influencer Series brings together readers and high-profile Missourians for conversations about the biggest issues confronting the state. From now through this fall's election, The Star will be asking its readers and the panel of 51 Influencers to weigh in on issues. Readers can ask questions and vote on topics they want the Influencers to address to help drive coverage.
Forty-six Influencers weighed in on economic issues confronting Missouri. Almost half, 48 percent, cited business attraction/retention as the most important issue, followed by income inequality at 18 percent, wage growth/stagnation at 16 percent and state and federal tax cuts at 11 percent. Seven percent rated tariffs and trade the No. 1 issue.
But for readers, and farmers like Hurst, it's the front-burner issue right now.
Since his presidential campaign, Trump has been critical of free-trade deals and claims the U.S. is being treated unfairly. He levied tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union in a move he said was designed to protect national security.
The EU hit back with tariffs on a list of American products, including motorcycles, corn, bourbon and clothing. Harley-Davidson announced it would start producing bikes overseas to avoid the retaliatory tariff, drawing outrage from Trump, who threatened to tax the company. Harley months before had announced its decision to close its Kansas City plant and shift its production to York, Pa.
Trump has also taken aim at China for alleged intellectual property violations and a trade imbalance. He threatened to put tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods and followed up with another $200 billion threat if China retaliated, with $200 billion on top of that if China continued to hit back.
For businesses, the tariffs create uncertainty. Brian Murphy, a trade attorney based in Kansas City, called his workload "literally unprecedented." He said he's been getting calls from clients trying to adapt to the changes and from potential new clients wanting to make sure they're following the law.
In many cases, it's not as simple as finding a new market for American exports if Trump's targets retaliate with tariffs of their own, Murphy said.
Farmers were already facing low commodity prices. Soybean prices have fallen 18 percent since last month. The crop hit a low $8.42 per bushel on June 19, a day after Trump doubled down on threats to slap tariffs on Chinese imports and China threatened to retaliate.
“If I don’t get as much money for selling soybeans, then I don’t go spend as much money at the grocery store or at Target or what have you, so it trickles down to everyone," Hurst said.
Trump's steel tariffs also could drive up the cost of tractors and other equipment, Hurst said, creating a "double whammy" for farmers.
"I’m making less money on my soybeans and I have to pay more money for a new tractor," Hurst said.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, said he didn't think people were aware of just how much agricultural business is done near Kansas City.
"I don't know if people in our community understand the hit we're about to take," Cleaver said.
Cost hikes for businesses may mean price hikes for everyone.
“No company is going to take a loss," said Anh✓ Halliburton, an importer with Design Resources Inc. "Why would you do business if you take a loss? Someone’s paying. We haven’t seen it yet, but we will.”
Companies that can't do business under higher tariffs may have to find other solutions. Mid-Continent Nail, the largest U.S. nail manufacturer, is laying off employees in Poplar Bluff, blaming the tariffs.
“It’s going to be maybe more common than people would expect just because it has a direct — if there’s additional costs, they’ve got to be passed on in some fashion to somebody, and it affects the bottom line," Murphy said.
U.S. Steel Corp. and other domestic steel companies may benefit from the tariffs. The company announced it would again make steel in Granite City, Ill., because of the Trump tariffs.
"Our Granite City Works facility and employees, as well as the surrounding community, have suffered too long from the unending waves of unfairly traded steel products that have flooded U.S. markets," the company's president and CEO, David Burritt, said in a release.
Jeff Simon, a member of the Influencers panel and a managing partner at Husch Blackwell, urged candidates to "candidly explain their position" on trade to the voters.
"Candidates owe the voters, at the very least, honest discourse and thoughtful discussion on how a superficially popular policy, such as 'America First' tariffs, may actually be hurting Missouri businesses, farmers and consumers," Simon said.
Trump claimed the steel and aluminum tariffs were aimed at ensuring national security by protecting domestic suppliers. Federal law authorizes the president to levy tariffs on imports in the interest of national security. Some argue that authority is too broad.
Several Influencers — including Pam Whiting, vice president for communications at the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce; John Hancock, a political consultant and former chairman of the Missouri GOP; Kansas City Mayor Sly James; and Deb Hermann, a former city council member and CEO of Northland Neighborhoods Inc. — all encouraged Congress to seize more authority over trade by either reversing Trump's tariffs or reconsidering the authority that allowed him to impose them.
"We need to demand that they and any future office holder take action," Hermann said.
Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon urged members of Congress to stand up to Trump.
"When the president is impulsive and wrong, say so clearly," Nixon said.
Maurice Watson, a partner at Husch Blackwell and LGBTQ rights advocate, said legislators should consult experts for help in understanding the issues, pick a side and stick to it. He noted, however, that individual members of Congress have a limited ability to affect change on trade policy.
"The best an individual member could do would be to seek to influence the president and executive agency policymakers," Watson said.
At this point, though, a trade war "hasn't really happened," said Influencer Woody Cozad, a lobbyist and former Missouri GOP chairman.
"If and when a real trade war gets started, Congress needs to step in and cool it down," Cozad said.
Political strategist James Harris said "change takes time" and the president's saber rattling will worry people at first, but he thought candidates should tell voters to be patient "to see how the president can improve trade deals." The reality, he said, is that the U.S. is the world's largest economy and people want U.S.-manufactured goods.
"Fair trade — if deals could be updated (or) improved — is good for farmers, consumers, Missouri citizens," Harris said. "China knowingly stealing intellectual property is a legitimate problem. Candidates should explain there are some legitimate problems with unfair trade deals, and we should give the president time because his goals are what the vast majorities of Missouri wants."
For now, Hurst said, farmers haven't felt the worst of the tariffs, but he guessed they would eventually feel the full effects.
"I hope we’re OK, but we may," Hurst said. "And if we do, we will ride the storm out.”
Previous survey: Missouri's infrastructure took the spotlight in the first Influencers story.
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