Myth-Busting Fortunes of the Steel Industry

Today, the Washington Post finally got around to publishing a story about the enviable state of America’s most iconic manufacturing industry – the steel industry.

Steel prices are at record highs, surging more than 70 percent in the past year alone. Industry profits have set new records in recent years. Return on investment has been astronomical. The American Stock Exchange’s Steel Index increased 49 percent per year from 2003 to 2007, as compared to 13 percent per year for the S&P 500. Foreign demand continues to be white hot, while demand from U.S. steel-using industries continues to be stronger-than-expected in a slowing economy.

U.S. steel industry shipments of 106 million tons in 2007 exceeded the industry’s 1970 shipments by 16 percent. Output per worker has soared: in the 1970s producing a ton of steel required 12 man-hours; today it requires 1.2 man-hours. Several billion dollars of new green-field investments are being made by foreign and domestic producers in U.S. production capacity, which is a sure sign that those who know the industry best have faith in America’s manufacturing future.

We at Cato have been reporting about the high-flying steel industry for several years now (here, here, and here), and about the record performance of the U.S. manufacturing sector overall (here and here). But the mainstream media (with a few exceptions) has been silent about these incredible successes, while Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the Congressional Steel Caucus, other members of Congress, Lou Dobbs, the United Steelworkers, the AFL-CIO, the Alliance for American Manufacturing, and other entities whose agendas require an environment of public fear have had carte blanche to mislead and deceive the public about trade and manufacturing.

The preference in the media for exceptional doom and gloom stories about job loss and manufacturing ghost towns over factual stories about the real state of manufacturing has definitely taken its toll. Opinion polls show irrational levels of antipathy toward trade and globalization among the American public, which simply belies the facts.

I suppose it would be wrong to blame the media for pursuing a proven formula: fear and drama sell advertising. But maybe the commoditization of fear and drama will lead more news media to discover niche markets, like the market for quaint, factual stories couched in perspective.