Biden quadruples tariffs on Chinese EVs, up from 25% to 100%

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The US government has announced wider tariffs on several categories of Chinese goods, including various green products like solar panels and batteries, medical goods, and in particular an increase of tariffs on Chinese EVs from 25% to 100%.

Rumors were first reported last week that tariffs on Chinese-made goods would be extended and expanded after a multi-year review of “section 301 tariffs” that had been implemented under the previous administration.

Previously, all cars made in China were subject to a 25% tariff when imported to the US, on top of an additional 2.5% tariff that all foreign-made cars were subject to, totaling 27.5%. This large tariff has had the effect of excluding most Chinese autos from the US market, as it’s easier to export to countries with lower tariffs first.

However, given Chinese EVs are incredibly affordable, even a 25% tariff might have resulted in competitive prices. For this reason, it was considered inevitable by most observers that eventually Chinese EVs would make their way into being sold in the US.

It seems that Biden has also decided that the 25% tariff wouldn’t be enough to forestall China’s advance, and has decided to instead quadruple it to 100%, meaning that Chinese EVs will effectively sell for double the price they would otherwise if brought to the US.

The move also includes increased tariffs on batteries, battery minerals, solar panels, steel and aluminum, and computer chips. Most of these tariffs go into effect this year, though some will be imposed next year.

Currently only two EVs in the US are made in China, the Polestar 2 and Volvo S90 Recharge Plug-in Hybrid. Both companies are owned by Geely, but still headquartered in Sweden, with manufacturing in various parts of the world depending on model.

But the excellent Volvo EX30 is set to release this year at a starting price of $35k, which was inclusive of the 25% credit. With no other changes, its price would rise to ~$54k – unless or until Volvo moves production out of China, something BYD has also considered in order to enter the US market.

We reached out for comment from both Volvo and Polestar, and this is what we heard back:

As a global manufacturer Volvo Cars is in favor of free trade and open markets. Free trade creates jobs, wealth and economic growth. Volvo believes strongly in the benefits of investing and contributing to the main markets in which it seeks to sell cars, reflected in our $1B South Carolina manufacturing plant where we are creating thousands of jobs building EVs for the US and world markets.

-Volvo spokesperson

We are currently evaluating the announcement of tariff increases from the Biden Administration. As a global company headquartered in Sweden, listed on NASDAQ in New York and operating across 27 markets, we believe that free trade is essential to speed up the transition to more sustainable mobility through increased EV adoption. Production of Polestar 3 is set to begin in South Carolina in the summer diversifying our manufacturing footprint and supporting job creation and economic growth in the region. This important SUV for us will be built in the USA for U.S. and Canadian customers as well as for export to European markets.

-Polestar spokesperson

Unfortunately, neither company was able to provide more details on their current plans for various models – in particular, the two models mentioned above, and the upcoming EX30. We imagine more info will come on that soon.

In general, reaction to the move was positive from manufacturing trade assocations and labor groups, but negative from economists and consumer advocates. And negative, of course, from China, whose Ministry of Commerce said it “will take resolute measures to defend its rights and interests.” This likely includes a lawsuit in front of the World Trade Organization and/or retaliatory tariffs, as is usually the case in trade wars like this.

These tariffs had been called for by several entities in the US (and Europe), as Chinese EV manufacturing has rapidly ramped in recent years.

China was originally somewhat slow to adopt EVs – in 2015, EV market share was just .84%, similar to the US market share of .66% and well below California at 3.1% at the time. But in 2023, US market share had risen to a meager 7.6% and California to just 21.4%, whereas China’s EV market share was a whopping 37%, leapfrogging several other leading countries in the process (and it was just 5% in 2020, so the turn upwards has been very rapid over the last 3 years). It caught foreign manufacturers by surprise, leaving ICE car values plummeting in China as consumers are simply not interested.

Despite the massive swing upwards in Chinese EV interest, EV manufacturing has risen even more rapidly. This has left Chinese automakers with more than enough vehicles for the export market, and they have started exporting so many to Europe that they can’t find enough ships to carry them.

Those EVs haven’t made their way to the US yet, but most thought that it was inevitable they would soon. But with these increased tariffs, that makes it less likely that US consumers will gain access to these cheap, high-tech Chinese EVs.

This isn’t the first move that Biden has made to limit the ability of the Chinese auto industry to operate in the US. The Inflation Reduction Act which updated the US EV tax credit included protectionist measures to disallow Chinese-sourced EVs from taking advantage of the credit. To qualify, EVs must be assembled in America and must have a certain percentage of components sourced in the US or US free trade countries, and can’t include parts from “foreign entities of concern” (though there are some ways around this).

The net effect of the IRA is that batteries sourced from China have a harder time getting access to US tax credits, thus reducing their competitiveness in the US market.

Electrek’s Take

I wrote a piece this weekend about how these tariffs are not a good idea. It’s long but I’d encourage giving it a read.

The basic idea is that protectionist trade measures generally cause more chaos than they’re worth, fail to protect the industries they are intended to protect, and lull industry into a false sense of security thus making it less competitive in the long run. If protectionist measures are needed, it’s better to encourage domestic industry with incentives than to implement tariffs.

For one, it seems like there’s no way these tariffs don’t increase the price of goods for Americans, which is something America (and the world) is struggling with right now.

The administration says that it does not expect much overall inflation because these tariffs are aimed at industries which Biden has targeted for growth, but for us in the EV world, that means prices of EVs will likely rise. Current EVs that get affordable batteries from China will be made more expensive, or will need to find new suppliers which can now charge higher prices since they don’t have to compete with the previously lowest-priced option.

And same with EVs as a whole – the existence of excellent small cars like the EX30 exerts downward price pressure on competing vehicles, which now won’t have to worry about that particular car (or any other affordable EVs which might make their way here) as competition.

And the net effect of that is lower EV adoption – which means Americans won’t get cleaner air as quickly as we would otherwise.

Meanwhile, while it may give a little breathing room for the American auto industry to catch up, it may also make them think they don’t need to work as hard to do so. American automakers already lobby to slow down the EV transition, so it’s clear they aren’t interested in moving as fast as they possibly can.

But even though tariffs hurt the US economy, they are still popular. So this decision doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it happens with an important election just months away.

Of course, despite this being a bad move, there aren’t many other options. President Biden’s election competitor, Mr. Trump, also favors increased tariffs, but further favors torpedoing America’s manufacturing competitiveness by actively seeking to harm EV production. He recently asked oil companies for a billion dollars in bribes, promising to shut down incentives for American manufacturing if they give it to him.

So there is still a clear better choice for how to handle the issue of the EV trade – even if both seem committed to making some poor decisions on the way.

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