ELKHART: Carrie Gray points to a stack of unwelcome mail on a conference table at the offices of Renegade RV, one of the leading U.S. manufacturers of high-end recreational vehicles. She’s buried in bad news from most of her about 350 suppliers.
“We got letters from 75 percent of them demanding tariff-related price increases,” explains Gray, Renegade’s materials manager.
About 85% of the recreational vehicles sold in the United States are built in and around Elkhart County, making it a popular stop for politicians to tout their visions for U.S. manufacturing – including President Donald Trump, who staged a rally here last May.
And yet this uniquely American manufacturing sector has been caught in the crossfire of Trump’s trade war, according to interviews with industry insiders and economists, along with data showing a steep sales decline amid rising costs and consumer prices. The industry has taken hits from U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum and other duties on scores of Chinese-made RV parts, from plumbing fixtures to electronic components to vinyl seat covers.
Shipments of RVs to dealers have fallen 22% percent in the first five months of this year, compared to the same period last year, after slipping 4% in 2018, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.
The RV industry’s woes illustrate how even the most “American” of manufacturers, the kind of industries Trump has vowed to protect, can be heavily exposed to tariffs in a world of globalized supply chains.
Tariff-related price hikes have forced manufacturers to pass on some of the increased costs though higher RV prices, which in turn has contributed to slower sales. As dealers cut orders, many plants furloughed workers or reduced hours, including Renegade, which has reduced its headcount of 160 by about 10 workers since May at its two factories here.
Michael Hicks, a Ball State University economist who tracks the industry, said its decline is far worse than he or other analysts expected and could signal a wider economic downturn. RV shipments have fallen sharply just before the last three U.S. recessions. (Reuters)