What a Trade War With China Looks Like on the Front Lines

What a Trade War With China Looks Like on the Front Lines

But other Chinese products covered by tariffs aren’t so easy for their importers to substitute.

Ray Electric Outboards in Cape Coral, Fla., imports its powerheads — the electric motors that turn the propeller for a small boat — from China. Shifting to a different supplier is no small matter.

“Have I tried different companies to get a different motor?” said Joy Hurley, business manager at Ray Electric. “Yes, but it’s just not as readily available. There is nothing else that will work in our system.” The company has molds that are already made to fit the company’s current suppliers’ products, and it costs thousands of dollars to change them.

“The motors that I have as options in the United States don’t fit in our housing,” Ms. Hurley said. Meanwhile, the company’s profit margins are too thin to absorb the cost of 25 percent tariffs. In the short run, she said, the company will need to raise prices to pass the tax through to customers.

The American boating industry has complained of many elements of the tariffs. Mercury Marine, for example, of Fond du Lac, Wis., said in a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative that it employs 4,800 American workers, but that the manufacture of 40-to-60-horsepower boat engines in Suzhou, China, is crucial to the enterprise.

“It’s very difficult for some of these companies to absorb these costs entirely,” said Nicole Vasilaros, senior vice president at the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Motors are one of 300 frequently used boat parts facing the tariff, she said, which cumulatively could mean a $2,000 price increase on 14– to 16-foot vessels that generally cost in the low five figures.

Because boats are often bought for recreational purposes, their demand tends to be elastic — highly responsive to price changes. That means those higher prices may well translate into fewer people enjoying their summer in a new motorboat.

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