USA Politics First Look

Wal-Mart, other retailers betting against Trump’s border tax

Many retailers that were contemplating a complicated and costly shift of supply lines closer to the US are now changing their calculus to fight a border tax bill in Congress.

Customers walk outside of a Wal-Mart store in San Jose, Calif. From Wal-Mart to General Motors to Amazon, a growing number of the world’s largest companies appear to be trying to get in step with President Trump’s demand that employers hire and keep jobs at home.
Jeff Chiu/AP/File
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  • Nandita Bose
    Reuters

Target Corp, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, and other retailers are shelving considerations to move supply bases closer to the United States in the face of a possible border tax, banking instead on killing support for the tax idea in Congress. President Trump's administration plans to impose a 20 percent tax on imports, a levy that, industry officials said, could raise US consumer prices by as much as 25 percent. Last week, the president said he favored an 'import tax' that could be adjusted to reflect the country of origin's tax rate for US products.

The decision by retailers to forestall supply chain investment in countries such as Bolivia and Romania to focus on lobbying Congress shows how Mr. Trump's ambitious agenda has instilled a new level of risk operating outside US borders. But the vagueness around Trump's proposals and whether they may ever be implemented means retail industry executives are still not willing to change their operating infrastructure.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, which is leading the industry lobbying effort, has conducted 140 meetings with lawmakers since December, focusing on the costs of a new tax and encouraging lawmakers who oppose Trump's idea.

Prospects for a quick passage of a tax bill took a hit last month when the Republican attempt to overhaul the national health-care law failed to get a vote in the House of Representatives. Trump and Republican leaders have said they still intend to pass a health care reform law first, casting further doubt on when Congress may consider tax reform.

The border tax proposal likely will be "as messy as the healthcare bill," according to Brian Dodge, senior executive vice-president of public affairs for the retail lobby group.

Target, for one, thinks the industry's lobbying efforts are succeeding.

"We are working on educating lawmakers and President Trump hasn't embraced it yet, so we definitely think we are making progress," a senior company official at Target said on condition of anonymity.

There is good reason for retailers to fight the tax idea. RBC Capital Markets forecast such a levy could reduce profits of six large US retailers by as much as $13 billion in its first year, with Wal-Mart alone seeing its federal tax bill jump to $16.6 billion from $6.6 billion. 

Best Buy Co Inc, which relies heavily on electronics imports, could see its earnings completely wiped out, RBC warned. Best Buy declined to comment.

Firms with less exposure to overseas suppliers – ranging from off-price chains like TJX Cos and Ross Stores to cosmetics seller Ulta Beauty – would feel less impact than heavy importers like Wal-Mart, Target and Costco Wholesale Corp, analysts and consultants said.

TJX Companies and Ulta Beauty declined comment. Ross Stores and Costco did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Steve Osburn, director of supply chain for retail consultancy Kurt Salmon, said it is more cost effective to spend on lobbying than on supply chain relocation at this point. Retailers also have other investment needs, especially around winning consumers who want to shop from home.

"They are putting a lot of money in e-commerce initiatives to compete online so there are not a lot of funds to spare," he said.

One outlier is luxury handbag maker Rebecca Minkoff, which sells its own products and supplies other retailers, like Nordstrom Inc and Amazon.com Inc.

The prospect of a Trump border tax factored into its recent decision to supply US customers from Europe as it mitigates logistics costs to supply to the United States, according to Uri Minkoff, the firm's founder and CEO.

"The process has intensified in the past six months," said Mr. Minkoff.

Where the supply chains are

The decision to bank more on the lobby effort to kill support for the tax idea comes after retailers spent the last few months considering whether to move some of their production to supply bases like Bolivia, Brazil and other South American countries with low wage rates, as well as European countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, industry sources told Reuters.

A return to the United States was also a consideration, the sources said.

Shifting production from existing supply bases like China is costly, may involve intellectual property issues and disrupts long-term supply contracts, making it hard to plan and execute such moves, two industry sources said.

Consultants have told retailers they could mitigate shipping costs enough to offset any border tax, while avoiding the cost of moving production into the US, the sources said.

But so far they are not proceeding with major supply chain changes, according to retailers and industry consultants.

"Wal-Mart is not ready to spend money to deal with this," said a supply chain consultant who works with the retailer but requested anonymity for fear of disrupting the firm's relationship with Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart has reviewed its options with supply chain consultants, but has not yet commissioned a concrete contingency plan, sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Wal-Mart declined comment.

Executives at smaller retailers and brands like Samsonite, Crate and Barrel and Steve Madden said there is little competitive impetus for action because they believe a border tax would hurt them and competitors equally.

Samsonite was studying reviving its US manufacturing base, but is not close to taking action.

"Setting plans (based) on policy proposals that are yet to be implemented is not right," Samsonite Chief Executive Officer Ramesh Tainwala told Reuters.

Minneapolis-based Target is limiting itself to conducting feasibility studies. "We just don't want to get ahead of ourselves and invest capital," the Target official said.

Target declined comment.