Does Big Steel Still Dominate U.S. Trade Policy?

The chart above depicts the operating performance of the industry that is most protected by U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty restraints. As that chart demonstrates, the U.S. steel industry is in robust health–well outperforming overall manufacturing (i.e., its customers) for the past few years.

Should one conclude that that performance is a reflection of the insulation from competition it has been afforded? That’s likely to be one of the steel industry’s arguments before the U.S. International Trade Commission, which is holding a hearing tomorrow concerning the question of whether 13-year old antidumping and countervailing duty restrictions against imported corrosion-resistant steel from six countries should be continued for at least five more years. (This paper explains why revocation in these so-called Sunset Reviews is rare).

But those restrictions, as well as the 160 other trade remedy restraints currently in place to protect the steel industry, date back to the 1990s and earlier, when the industry’s performance was much closer to the first four bars than the last three. If anything, longstanding trade protection delayed the day of reckoning for many inefficient mills by discouraging them from exiting the market and encouraging continued inefficient operation.

From an operating perspective, the year 2004 stands out as a clear dividing line between the steel industry of old, and the new, revitalized industry of today. But the dramatic industry renaissance that has bestowed market power, record profitability, and insulation from any significantly adverse effects of foreign competition on U.S. steel producers began in 2002, after the government assumed $9 billion in the industry’s unfunded pension and health care obligations.

By wiping those liabilities off of the books of several major bankrupt steel producers, that intervention paved the way for mergers and acquisitions and new labor agreements that have enabled the industry to retire inefficient capacity, cut its fixed costs, and consolidate production decisions. In 2003, the top three producers of flat-rolled steel (the steel used in autos, appliances, and construction) controlled 25 percent of flat-rolled steel production capacity. Today, the top three control 70 percent.

That concentration has given the domestic industry a high degree of market power, which enables it to prop up prices and weather downturns in demand by curtailing output. There’s nothing objectionable about that (with the exception of the government-assisted jumpstart) unless, of course, steel is a major component of the products you manufacture. What is objectionable, then, is buttressing this emerging oligopoly with continued trade restraints. Consumers of steel should be expected to adapt to the effects of greater concentration of steel production, but that adaptation requires having access to imported substitutes and supplements.

Taxpayers, steel-using industries, and consumers have subsidized this industry for too long.

The ITC’s decision, expected in December, will speak volumes to the question of whether that agency continues to be a rubber stamp for the steel lobby’s protectionist agenda.