Tariffs and Auto Insurance

By Dr. Steven Weisbart, Chief Economist, Insurance Information Institute 

Thursday’s announcement of escalating tariffs on Mexico could further squeeze auto insurers by making replacement parts more expensive.

In an action to deter the flow of asylum-seekers on the southern border, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would impose escalating tariffs on all Mexican imports beginning June 10 at 5 percent, growing steadily to 25 percent on October 1, if Mexico does not comply.

A tariff effectively acts as a sales tax on goods entering the country, so it drives up the price of those goods.

The property/casualty industry has previously noted a 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods could raise collision repair costs by 2.7 percent, or $3.4 billion. China is the No. 2 exporter of auto parts to the United States – about $20 billion worth in 2018, according to data AutomotiveAftermarket.org culled from federal databases. Mexico is No. 1. It sends us nearly three times as much – $59 billion last year. Together, the two countries make up just over half the $158 billion in auto parts imported.

Even before tariffs, the rising cost of repairs is already an issue for auto insurers. A headlight assembly can easily top $1,000; a bumper with anti-crash sensors can cost $4,000 to replace, as we discuss in this presentation on auto costs.

Insurers bear the immediate impact of the tariffs. If the tariffs remain, they will have to raise rates to cover the increased cost. Tariffs on Mexico would also increase the cost of new cars, as the higher cost of components is passed through to consumers. This could slow the economy, and – since new cars generally cost more to insure than used ones – retard growth in personal auto premiums.

A specialty insurance line, political risk, provides coverage and protection against some government actions such as expropriation, regulatory risk, and restrictions on cross border trade. U.S. companies routinely use this coverage to protect against actions by foreign governments such as the impositions of import and export tariffs sizable enough to be debilitating to their operations and profitability. However, this coverage is not yet available in the domestic U.S. market.

There could be implications for the larger economy. On August 1 the economy will likely set a record for the longest continuation expansion ever recorded in the United States, but it may be is limping across that finish line. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta forecasts just 1.2 percent growth in the seasonally adjusted annual rate of real GDP for second quarter, down from 3.1 percent last quarter. Higher tariffs place a drag on the economy, the same way any tax increase would. Rescinding the tariffs could help rekindle the economy, the same way a tax decrease would.