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Trade showdown

Even for a customs broker, it’s tough to keep track of tariffs right now

Kai Ryssdal Aug 26, 2019
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A China Shipping Lines container ship heading toward the Vincent Thomas Bridge at the Port of Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

It’s unclear where things stand with the U.S.-China trade war. After an escalation on Friday from both China and the U.S., President Donald Trump said today, without specifics or confirmation from the Chinese, that Beijing called and said they want to make a deal. All that complicates life for Gretchen Blough, a customs broker in Erie, Pennsylvania. The following is an edited transcript of her conversation with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal.

Kai Ryssdal: So, I’ll tell you what, we’ve wanted to call you for a little while now because, obviously, tariff news. And then Friday happened and the weekend happened. And we said, “now we got to get Gretchen on the phone.” Has your phone’s been ringing off the hook the last couple of, three days?

Gretchen Blough: Oh, yeah, I got some emails first thing this morning basically asking, “is this really going to happen?” And you have to explain that a tweet is not necessarily a policy that’s carved in stone yet, and then this morning, word that the U.S. and China are back at the talks table, from one day to the next, it changes.

Ryssdal: What kinds of questions are they asking? Is it about, like, when to ship stuff? Or how should I categorize this piece of you know, equipment or whatever?

Blough: Well, kind of all of the above. “What list is my stuff falling on?” Because it’s kind of confusing this time with the list 4A that takes place Sept. 1, and then there’s the list 4B Dec. 15

Ryssdal: We should explain that’s the actual header on the list, its the No. 4A, so we’re in like the fourth round, and we’re splitting it umpteen different ways.

Blough: Right. And there’s, as an example, there’s clothing items on both lists. So, it depends on the specifications of the different clothing items as to which list it’s on. So that gets a bit confusing for people. Same with some food products and whatnot, LED screens and that type of thing. There’s some on each list. So, it’s very difficult for importers to understand exactly what’s going on. And when they’re going to be affected.

Ryssdal: Drill down a little bit, right, because even the tiniest variations in a product or some kind of produced good can put it on one list or the other right?

Blough: Exactly. Shoes as an example — just the type of sole can make a difference, the type of upper can make a difference, what kind of stitching is on it.  That type of thing can make a difference as to how it’s classified and therefore what list it is on.

Ryssdal: So which was listed on that affects which set of tariffs it hits, right, either one September or 15 December, right?

Blough: Yes, that’s correct.

Ryssdal: You ever seen anything like this, by the way? You’ve been doing this a while I imagine.

Blough: I’ve been doing it a while, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I really like being able to give my customers definitive answers, and I haven’t been able to do that in a year or two now. Anytime someone asked me something, I said, “well, this is where it stands right now, but that could change at any minute,” and I mean, that’s the absolute truth.

Ryssdal: Right. So, I have to ask you this, as a trained customs professional, is this going to mess up my Christmas shopping?

Blough: Yes, exactly. Yeah, I mean, everything’s going to get passed along to the consumer. So everyone’s going to pay a little bit more and if you don’t get your Christmas shopping done by Dec. 15, then you’re kind of out of luck. I’m kind of a last minute shopper myself. So, this year, I’m not going to be I’m going to plan a bit ahead on things in order to make sure I get the best price available.

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