Tariffs & How They Will Impact Your Construction Business

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Tariff - A tax on imports or exports, typically between two countries. It is a form of regulation of foreign trade and a policy that taxes foreign products to encourage or safeguard the domestic industry.

In recent years, governments have used tariffs as a form of protectionism. In 2018, the United States government began imposing tariffs on steel, aluminum, and lumber from a number of countries. Based on 2020 import levels, these tariffs currently impact over $410 billion of imports and exports. As of August 2021, the US is in talks with the EU to come to an agreement related to the 25% steel tariffs and 10% aluminum tariffs, with an agreement expected by November 2021. The US and China, on the other hand, do not appear to be close to resolving the trade issues that lead to the tariffs, and the Biden administration has not and has no plans to reduce or eliminate the tariffs on China’s goods at this point.

These tariffs were imposed in order to try to protect the US manufacturing industry. However, these tariffs may lead to negative effects for industries, such as construction, because it relies heavily on these products. Construction businesses need to be:
• aware of these tariffs
• the challenges they could bring
• have strategies in place to address these challenges

Impact of Tariffs on Construction Businesses

  • Increases in material costs.
    As tariffs are an additional tax on the imported materials, the cost of these materials will increase, leading to increased job costs for your construction business. If they cannot be passed to the customer, they will go directly to the bottom line.
  • Volatility in pricing.
    As the government is in control of the tariff policies, at any time there may be changes to the rate or it may be removed completely. Being unable to accurately predict this pricing, may have a negative impact on contracts and budgets, which were completed under different scenarios.
  • Delays in receipt of materials and project completion.
    Tariffs often lead to delays in receipt of materials as processing times at ports of entry typically become longer. Large projects, which had their scheduling completed prior to the tariffs, may face difficulties in reaching completion.
  • Changes in supply chain or lack of materials.
    Tariffs may lead to your vendor’s prices increasing to where you cannot afford them. You may need to shop around for the best price. This could lead to difficulties working with a new vendor, decreased reliability in receiving materials, or having to settle for the increased costs. Tariffs may also affect the number or type of choices for material specifications for a project, as there may only be a few types of materials in the desired price range.

5 Strategies to Mitigate Tariff Challenges

  1. Escalation Clauses
    An escalation clause is a provision in a contract calling for adjustments in fees, wages, or other payments to account for fluctuations in the costs of raw materials or labor. As it relates to tariffs, an escalation clause may be included in a contract to shift the burden of increased material costs from the contractor to the customer.
  2. Supply Bonds
    Supply bonds are used to provide a guarantee that a supplier will deliver the promised materials on time. Securing supply bonds upfront, will mitigate the risk of materials not being delivered if a large tariff is imposed on the vendor in between the time of the signing of the contract and the time of delivery.
  3. Subcontractor Default Insurance
    Subcontractor Default Insurance may be used to recoup costs incurred from a default in performance by a subcontractor. If tariffs affect a subcontractor to a point where they are unable to fulfill their performance requirements, this will help to protect the contractor.
  4. Tariff Exclusions
    To help lessen the impact for certain companies who were greatly affected by the recent tariffs, in 2020 the US Trade Representative offered an exclusion on tariffs on certain goods imported from China. Companies could request the exclusion, however, they must show the tariffs are causing their business economic harm, as well as show the product is only available in China. These exclusions typically last for a 12-month period. The exclusions currently in effect are set to expire on September 30, 2021, however, the US Trade Representative is under pressure from many stakeholders to open the process up again for new applicants.
  5. Stay Up-to-Date
    Keep track of current and future proposed tariffs. This will help your construction business improve planning and allow you to get in front of the challenges discussed above.

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