The trade sanctions threatened by the Clinton administration against Japan would hurt the port of Baltimore, but the severity of the impact here would depend on where punitive measures are targeted, port officials said yesterday.
Baltimore is one of the largest automobile ports in the country, with cars and trucks accounting for more than a third of all the longshoremen's work. But the port handles relatively few Japanese luxury cars, such as the Lexus, and only a fraction of the estimated 2 million tons of automobile parts imported from Japan last year.
Both are expected to be prime targets. "There's going to be an impact on the port, but a lot will depend on the specifics," said Jim Gring, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the state's public marine terminals.
If tariffs are limited to luxury cars and automotive parts, Baltimore won't be affected as much as other East Coast ports, like those in New Jersey, he said.
West Coast ports would be hit particularly hard if sanctions are imposed on parts.
"It just depends on where they draw the line," Mr. Gring said.
Nevertheless, automobiles play a critical role at the port of Baltimore, accounting for roughly 35 percent to 40 percent of all the hours worked here.
It takes twice as many workers, for instance, to load and unload cars as it does to handle containers.
And of the 194,331 cars imported here last year, roughly 67,000 were Japanese.
"A trade war would be very hurtful for Baltimore," said James L. Hughes, executive director of the World Trade Center Institute in Baltimore. "We get more coming in from Japan than going to Japan, so the danger for the port industry is definitely real."
While automobile imports still outnumber exports by nearly 2-to-1, exports have been growing in recent years.
At the same time, imports have declined somewhat because of a weak U.S. dollar and the decision by foreign manufacturers to build assembly plants in the United States.
"It's not like all the automobile business will evaporate here," Mr. Gring said. "Baltimore has a good mix of export and import."
The steep rise in the value of the yen already has driven up the price of Japanese cars in the United States and dampened sales.
According to Automotive News, during the first four months of the year Acura sales are off 33 percent compared to 1994; Toyota, 2 percent; Honda, 14.3 percent; Nissan 26.5 percent and Mazda, 22 percent.
Lawrence A. Neviaser, president of Neviaser Toyota & Dodge in Easton, said punitive tariffs would hurt dealers even more.
Mr. Neviaser said the appreciation of the yen already has put some import dealers at a disadvantage by adding between $1,800 and $2,000 to the cost of the average Toyota over the past 18 months.
Mr. Neviaser was primarily concerned about reports that 100 percent tariffs might be imposed on minivans and sport utility vehicles like the Toyota 4-Runner and Nissan Pathfinder.
"It won't just hurt the Japanese. It will hurt my employees, and they are Americans," he said.