ATLANTA — German business leaders are expressing concerns that President Donald Trump's 25 percent tariff on imported steel could affect the auto industry in the South.
WABE Radio reports Mercedes-Benz USA this month opened its new North American headquarters in Sandy Springs, Georgia, for 1,000 employees.
The luxury car manufacturer is owned by Germany-based Daimler, but Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Dietmar Exler used the grand opening to remind the crowd of the brand's U.S. presence.
That includes operations in South Carolina and in Alabama.
"We are now in the midst of construction of our own factory here, which will open doors in the fall in Charleston, South Carolina, and we'll make all of the Sprinter vans for North America right here," Exler said at the grand opening of its headquarters in Sandy Springs, Georgia, just north of Atlanta.
"Right next to me you have a member of the most successful SUV family, a GLE Coupe," Exler said. "As you know, the GLE and the GLS are produced in Alabama. Last year, 280,000 cars were produced here not just for the U.S. market, but for markets all over the world."
German car factories in the U.S. made more than 800,000 vehicles last year, and about half were sold overseas, according to the German Association of the Automotive Industry.
This month, Volkswagen of America Inc. announced plans to build a new five-passenger SUV at its factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it manufactures other vehicles. Volkswagen AG is based in Wolfsburg, Germany.
"During my time as governor, I've watched Volkswagen Chattanooga flourish from a single vehicle producer, starting with the Passat, into what it is today - a thriving U.S. manufacturing operation that can produce three models, and counting," said Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said in a statement Monday, when plans were announced.
"We value Volkswagen as a committed partner, whose investments in the state have not only created new jobs, but have helped us build a skilled Tennessee workforce," Haslam said.
Volkswagen Chattanooga also manufactures the Passat and the Atlas.
Trump signed a proclamation last week to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel from every country except Canada and Mexico. The hope is to boost steel manufacturing in the U.S.
The concern among some industry experts is that tariffs on steel could hurt companies like Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Porsche, all of which have significant operations in the South, said Stefan Mair of the Federation of German Industries in Berlin.
"Do you see the cars outside? There's a lot of steel in there," Mair said at the grand opening of the Georgia headquarters complex. "We think there will be some additional percentage points on the prices of cars."
That price increase could be enough to stop people from buying new cars, said Lisa Cook, who teaches economics and international relations at Michigan State University.
"If consumers are price sensitive, and they are for many types of cars, this could cause people to postpone their decision to purchase a car," Cook said.
A little more than a quarter of all U.S. steel is used to make cars in this country, according to the German American Chamber of Commerce for the southern U.S.
"Approximately 25 percent of all steel is used in automotive manufacturing and 10 percent in machinery and equipment; both industries that German companies have heavily invested in the U.S. over the years," said Stefanie Ziska, president of GACC South.
Making cars more expensive to build and export could hurt U.S. jobs, said Jeffrey Rosensweig, who teaches international business at Georgia's Emory University.
"That would not only cost us jobs, it would hurt the U.S. and could potentially harm the U.S. trade balance," Rosensweig said. "Just the opposite of what President Trump thinks he's trying to achieve."
He said the steel tariffs could trigger a trade war that would go beyond the auto industry.
"These foreign nations that we're going to put these import taxes on, these tariffs, are not stupid," Rosensweig said. "They're going to retaliate against our exports, and they're going to hit us where it hurts, which is often our farm exports."