Mexico City — The increasingly sharp rhetoric over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement wasn't exactly center stage at Plastimagen. Visitors and exhibitors said the focus was definitely on business.
But still, like the hum of the machinery running in the exhibition halls, it was constantly in the background and could not be avoided.
There were voices of concern. The head of Mexico's leading plastics association, Anipac, for example, said in a speech that the region is being "convulsed" by the negotiations.
And Dwight Morgan, vice president of corporate development at resin distributor M. Holland Co., said potential changes are worrisome if it slows the economy.
"Our biggest concern is Mexico, especially if [changes to NAFTA] make investments slow down," he said. "We're assessing a lot of different contingencies."
But if there was one general reaction among attendees at Plastimagen, the industry's largest show in Mexico, it's that there are too many unknowns to make big changes in plans.
"As far as I can see at these booths, it's business as usual," said Mike Hicks, a vice president and board member at the Canadian Association of Mold Makers, in CAMM's booth. "Obviously it's on people's minds, but it's business as usual."
Wayne McLaughlin, plant manager for the Querétaro factory of Canada's Integrity Tool & Mold Inc., said while it's a concern, he thought any potential impact from NAFTA changes would be less than the economic impact of the deep recession in 2008.
"It was the biggest downturn in my career of 35 years," he said. "So whatever NAFTA could do, there's still anticipation of the automotive industry being strong, at least for two to three years.
"Adjusting for different tariffs and that would be minimal compared to what happened in 2008," he said. "In our industry, there's nothing we can do to counteract something we don't know."
John Manuck, chairman and CEO of U.S. materials supplier Techmer PM, said political rhetoric concerns him and doesn't fit a "collaborative" model he thinks companies and countries should follow.
But any potential changes to NAFTA did not impact his company's plans for its first Mexican plant, which is opening this month in Querétaro.
"We hardly looked at it," he said. "This is a long-term business decision, and I think long-term there's going to be a lot of economic benefit flowing up and down North and South America."
A Brazil-based DowDuPont Inc. executive said her company remains focused on Mexico.
"We'll have to wait and see the impact, but our focus and attention for the Mexican market is independent of what happens [in the United States]," said Paloma Alonso, Latin America commercial vice president for packaging and specialty plastics. "Whatever happens, we're going to be here."
Other executives noted advantages to being in Mexico to take advantage of the 12 free trade agreements Mexico has with 43 countries. That allows them to more easily export to countries that don't have a free trade deal with the United States.
But the U.S. government is maintaining its tough language.
In a formal statement in October after the conclusion of the fourth round of NAFTA talks between the three governments, the Trump administration's lead negotiator said NAFTA has resulted in a "huge trade deficit for the United States and has cost us tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs."
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said NAFTA is not balanced: "I understand that after many years of one-sided benefits, [Canadian and Mexican] companies have become reliant on special preferences and not just comparative advantage."
CAMM's Hicks, however, countered that "to be honest, I don't know what the special preferences would be."
A new report from the Washington-based Plastics Industry Association argues that trade within NAFTA is positive for the U.S. polymer sector.
The U.S. plastics industry had a surplus of $10.7 billion with Mexico in 2016, its largest globally, and a $719 million surplus with Canada, it's fifth-largest, the association said in its 2017 Global Trends report, released in mid-October.
The United States has a trade surplus with Mexico in resin, plastics products, molds and machinery. For Canada, the picture is more nuanced, with a surplus in plastics products but deficits in molds and machinery.
Juan Carlos Gonzalez, Latin American director for U.S. equipment supplier Milacron Holdings Corp., said he expected any final agreement would work out OK because of "the checks and balances that the U.S. government has, and the business people that are very much interested in keeping a healthy relationship within Canada, Mexico and the U.S."
Perhaps reflecting the self-selecting nature of a global trade show — attendees are by definition interested in boosting trade links — an executive with Engel Austria GmbH suggested collaboration.
"Let's face the situation: Mexico is exporting 80 percent of their goods to the United States. So let's assume we build a wall, where Mexico is not exporting anymore. Who will provide those goods?" said Walter Jungwirth, head of Mexico operations for Engel. "Aren't we much better off in working together?"