Wilbur Ross

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told the S.C. International Trade Conference that tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump are working to help erase trade imbalances with foreign countries. Seated are Gov. Henry McMaster (left) and Jim Newsome, CEO of the S.C. State Ports Authority Provided/State Ports Authority

At a conference dedicated to global trade, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Tuesday sought to assure attendees that President Donald Trump's tariff policies are working.

"Many of you worry about a trade war and the president's aggressive tactics, but this is an administration you really must judge by its results, not just by its sound bites," Ross said during the 45th annual S.C. International Trade Conference in Charleston.

"Results are what counts, and we are achieving results," Ross said, pointing to corporate tax cuts, third-quarter economic growth of 3.5 percent and the lowest unemployment rate in nearly five decades. "We have achieved successes that were unimaginable prior to his presidency."

The remarks come amid a backdrop of trade-related fluctuations on Wall Street and concerns about growing tensions between the United States, China and the European Union.

Allen Clifford, executive vice president of Mediterranean Shipping Co., said tariffs are creating "tremendous uncertainty" among cargo shippers.

"They are uncertain when the next shoe will drop in Washington," said Clifford, who was on a panel that discussed shipping trends at the conference. "When will the shoe drop in Beijing? What's going to happen with Brexit? There are so many unknowns."

Last week, Volvo Cars CEO Hakan Samuelsson blamed the trade war for higher prices that cut third-quarter profit in half even as worldwide sales saw double-digit increases. Chinese-owned Volvo recently opened a $1.1 billion plant near Ridgeville that builds S60 sedans, but has warned it might not export as many cars as planned due to tariffs.

"Looking ahead, the ongoing trade tension is worrisome for the auto industry and for us," Samuelsson said.

But Ross said the Trump administration "embraces wholeheartedly the operations of BMW, Michelin, Volvo, Samsung, Teijin and all the other foreign-owned companies" with operations in South Carolina.

"We want to encourage them to expand and especially to conduct R&D here," he said, referring to research and development work.

South Carolina has a lot to lose from a trade war. Upstate automaker BMW ships more than $2.4 billion worth of SUVs to China each year through the Port of Charleston, and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report shows $4.3 billion of Palmetto State goods are threatened by retaliatory tariffs.

All told, Trump has placed tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods and is threatening to hit another $255 billion with higher import taxes if next month's trade talks between the countries don't go well.

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Gov. Henry McMaster said he supports Trump's trade policies but is "constantly making South Carolina's case" with the president and other officials about how tariffs could affect to manufacturers and workers in the Palmetto State.

"The president and the administration are attempting to institute an era of fair trade and it is clear that China, for example, has not been engaging in fair trade," said McMaster, who also spoke at the conference Tuesday. "They are working toward that goal."

Ross — a billionaire whose former private-equity firm specialized in turnarounds of distressed firms like Georgetown's then-bankrupt steel mill more than a decade ago — said the country's trade policies are outdated and stem from efforts to rebuild foreign economies after World War II.

Such policies "might have been correct 60 or 70 years ago when those economies were small and fragile, but they are no longer appropriate today," he said.

China and Europe have taken advantage of weak trade policies under previous presidents, Ross said, while at the same time creating barriers like tariffs that have given them a competitive advantage over American businesses. He called last year's $376 billion trade deficit with China and a $151 billion trade shortfall with the European Union "too much — way too much."

While conceding "there is no good time for a trade spat," Ross said current strong economic growth in the U.S. "provides us close to a perfect time to address these longstanding issues" and balance the trade landscape.

"Our objective is not high tariffs," he said. "In fact, it's not tariffs at all. Our objective is trade that is free, fair and reciprocal with neither subsidies nor non-tariff barriers and proper respect for intellectual property rights."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_