Why Your Flat-Screen TV Would Cost More If Nafta Ends

By Robbie Whelan and Santiago Pérez Features Dow Jones Newswires

TIJUANA, Mexico -- One of the biggest potential casualties of the trade scuffle underway between Mexico and the U.S. is also one of America's favorite consumer products: cheap, high-definition, flat-panel televisions.

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Every year, U.S. consumers buy more than 40 million flat-screen TVs, as many as three-quarters of them assembled in factories here in Mexico's electronics-producing hub on the border with California.

On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, many of these shoppers will line up outside of Wal-Mart and Best Buy stores to buy their televisions. And every year, prices for flat-screens decline, as new models enter the market and retailers outdo one another to offer deeper discounts.

But behind this annual holiday tradition is a fragile business model that relies on razor-thin profit margins, nimble production networks and tariff-free trade between Mexico -- the world's top producer of televisions -- and the U.S., the top buyer.

Ending the North American Free Trade Agreement would shift more production of TV components to Asia, prompt higher prices for U.S. consumers and not result in new American jobs, according to manufacturing executives and analysts.

President Donald Trump has called Nafta, which enables those televisions to enter the U.S. tariff-free, a "total disaster" that has cost the U.S. millions of jobs, and pledged to pull out of the deal if it's not renegotiated to benefit American workers. A fifth round of Nafta talks, this time in Mexico City, ended on Tuesday with no major advances.

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For some industries, including auto manufacturing, an updated Nafta with tighter rules could lead to some job gains in the U.S., economists say. But not for flat-screen TV makers.

That is because for decades, most electronic components have been manufactured exclusively in China and other low-wage Asian countries, and because U.S. assembly salaries to put those components together are too expensive to compete with them.

"America doesn't even have the components in place to produce this product at twice the price," said James Lin, chief executive of Unis Co., an importer in the City of Industry, Calif., who distributes millions of televisions made by Samsung, LG, Vizio and other brands.

A closer look at how TVs are made shows why.

Nearly all a television's value comes from Asia. The majority -- between 60% and 80%, depending on the size -- is locked in one part alone: the glass LCD panel. Only seven companies in the world produce panels large enough for flat-screen televisions, and they are all in China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

The only components that are produced in North America are typically Mexican-made packaging and molded plastic or metal casings for the TV's exterior. Almost all other parts, including image and audio processing chips, transistors, capacitors and even screws, get their start in factories in Asia and arrive by container ship to the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Once in the U.S., they are trucked over the border -- tariff free -- to assembly plants in Tijuana, put together, packed, and trucked back over the border to distribution centers in Southern California.

Producing those parts in the U.S. -- especially the TV screens -- would be impossible, manufacturers say, because the factories don't exist, at least not yet.

In July, Foxconn Technology Group, the Taiwanese contract manufacturing giant, announced plans for a $10 billion factory in Wisconsin to manufacture flat-panel displays. But the plant, which would be the first plant of its kind in North America, depends on billions of dollars in uncertain government subsidies and could take years to build.

Under Nafta, TV manufacturers, who employ about 15,000 workers in Mexico, get to skip import tariffs of 5% under World Trade Organization rules -- tariffs that apply to almost all the TVs assembled outside Mexico.

"If Nafta ends, that competitive advantage ends," said Sergio Langarica, director of international trade and compliance for Sony Electronics Inc., based in San Diego.

With no Nafta, the assembly work done in Mexico nowadays would shift to other low-cost locations like Vietnam, agrees Mr. Lin, the TV importer in Southern California.

If Nafta is killed and tariffs are imposed, manufacturers will have to absorb those higher costs because U.S. consumers are generally unwilling to pay higher prices for televisions, said Paul Gagnon, director of TV sets research at consulting firm IHS Markit.

"Cost increases are not always seen in the form of price increases. Maybe that TV doesn't go on sale very often, which can have a big effect on sales," Mr. Gagnon added.

While 5% doesn't sound like very much, it would hurt in an industry where profit margins are very thin. Several brands sell cheap 32-inch models at a loss as they focus on bigger TV sets, such as 55-inch flat screens that give a margin of about 10%, according to IHS.

Mr. Langarica at Sony said ending Nafta would limit companies' ability to offer discounts, which are crucial to sales. Because flat-screens are not essential household items, most consumers wait until there's a big sale -- like every year on Black Friday -- to buy one.

"Just think about how much Black Friday has been conditioned into consumers' minds as a time to buy," said Mr. Gagnon at IHS. "When the deals don't seem to be as good, you're quite willing to go shopping for a washing machine instead."

Write to Robbie Whelan at robbie.whelan@wsj.com and Santiago Pérez at santiago.perez@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 22, 2017 05:14 ET (10:14 GMT)