How tariffs could knock Harley-Davidson off course

Harley-Davidson (HOG) is among the most iconic of American brands, with its signature throwback motorcycles as growling emblems of personal freedom. Now, the manufacturer faces a new test: roaring ahead despite President Donald Trump's "buy American" policy.

Mr. Trump highlighted that ethos on Thursday in officially imposing steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which he says is necessary to ensure fair trade with other countries. But for Harley, the levies couldn't have come at a worse time.

The company has struggled in recent years with declining sales and rising costs. In January, it announced plans to close its Kansas City plant, laying off 800 workers, and consolidating operations at three other manufacturing facilities. Reflecting that slowdown, Harley-Davidson shares have plunged nearly 13 percent this year, far underperforming the S&P 500 index. 

For Harley, whose executives visited the White House last year after Mr. Trump's election, raising tariffs on steel is likely to sting. Wedbush Securities estimates the company's costs could rise as much $30 million annually because of the steel tariffs, noting that domestic steel prices are also likely to rise as foreign imports falls.    

Competition in Harley's industry is fierce. Rival sports vehicle maker Polaris (PII) has gained market share at Harley's expense after it resurrected the Indian motorcycle brand several years ago. Japanese bike makers such as Honda (HMC), Kawasaki and Yamaha also remain formidable competitors both in the U.S. and in the increasingly crucial Asia market.

Perhaps even more troubling: Fewer consumers are being drawn to Harley's product line, said Jamie Katz, an analyst with Morningstar.

"You have more baby boomers leaving the market than new customers coming into the market," he said, calling Harley's goal of attracting 2 million new riders over the next decade "overly optimistic." He added that "There's a litany of headwinds that are working against the brand."

Officials with Harley and the trade group the Motorcycle Industry Council didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.  

The tariffs could also put Harley at a disadvantage in overseas markets, where it gets about one-third of its sales. Its foreign revenues fell nearly 4 percent in 2017. In a Jan. 30 conference call, Harley Chief Financial Officer John Olin attributed the decline to soft sales in China, India and other emerging markets. 

"Harley is most optimistic about its potential to grow sales in international markets, and this certainly isn't going to help that," said Wedbush analyst James Hardiman. "I would actually argue that they would actually be less competitive in the United States as well, which would be a strange byproduct of all of this because the cost to import steel would go up. That increases the cost of making a bike domestically, but the cost of importing a bike would not be going up domestically."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.