Tag: steel

Steel Yourself as Trump Cuts Off Trade to Spite His Face

Various news outlets are reporting that, at midnight tonight, special U.S. tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico, and the European Union will go into effect. This action stems (incongruously and capriciously) from two nearly yearlong investigations conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which found that imports of steel and aluminum “threaten to impair the national security” of the United States. This seldom used statute gives the president broad discretion both to define what constitutes a national security threat and to prescribe a course to mitigate the threat. On both counts, President Trump has abused that discretion.

In March, the president announced his intention to impose duties of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports from all countries. But temporary exemptions were granted to some countries in an effort to extort commitments from them to do their part to reduce the U.S. trade deficit (by selling us less stuff and buying from us more stuff) or to agree to U.S. demands in ongoing trade negotiations (South Korea, Canada, Mexico). The Koreans succeeded by agreeing to limits on their steel exports and by upping the percentage of US-made automobiles that can be sold in Korea without meeting all of the local environmental standards. Ah, free trade…

Apparently, the Europeans, Canadians, and Mexicans haven’t bent sufficiently to Trump’s will, therefore those countries—those steadfast allies—constitute threats to U.S. national security and will no longer be exempt from the tariffs, which means that U.S. industries that rely on steel and aluminum (imported or domestic) will be hit with substantial taxes to mitigate that threat. Got it?

This announcement comes on the heels of one made earlier this week regarding the “trade war” with China, which is back on 10 days after Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin declared it to be “put on hold.” (I guess it was just a rain delay.) On June 15, the administration will publish the final list of Chinese products—about 1,300 products valued at about $50 billion—that will be hit with 25 percent duties. The Chinese government has published its own list of U.S. exports that will be hit with retaliatory duties in China.

So, as has been the case every day for the past 16+ months, the U.S. and global economies (even as they’ve strengthened) remain exposed to the whims of an unorthodox president who precariously steers policy from one extreme to the other, keeping us in a perpetual state of uncertainty. With the Europeans, Canadians, Mexicans, and Chinese all preparing to retaliate in response to these precipitous U.S. actions, at the stroke of midnight we may finally get the certainty of the beginning of a deleterious trade war.

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“America’s Finest” Is Another Casualty of the Jones Act

Cato trade policy analyst Colin Grabow explains the sordid details in today’s Wall Street Journal:

America’s Finest, a brand-new 264-foot fishing trawler, ought to be the pride of the fleet. As a newspaper in its birthplace of Anacortes, Wash., explained, the ship features an “on-board mechanized factory, fuel-efficient hull, and worker safety improvements”—priceless features for fishermen operating in the treacherous seas off Alaska. The ship is also said to have a smaller carbon footprint than any other fishing vessel in its region. According to Fishermen’s Finest, the company that ordered the ship, it would be the first new trawler purpose-built for the Pacific Northwest since 1989.

Sadly, it seems increasingly doubtful that the ship will ever ply its trade in U.S. waters. That’s because it contravenes the Jones Act, the 1920 law mandating, among other things, that ships carrying cargo between U.S. ports be domestically built

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Under the Guise of Security, Trump Sets a Protectionist Fire

Protecting citizens from threats domestic and foreign is the most important function of government.  Among those very threats is a government willing to concoct and aggrandize dangers in order to rationalize abuses of power, which Americans have seen in spades since 9/11. Justifying garden variety protectionism as an imperative of national security is the latest manifestation of this kind of abuse, and it will lead inexorably to a weakening of U.S. security.

The tariffs on imported steel and aluminum that President Trump formalized this afternoon derive, technically, from an investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.  The statute authorizes the president to respond to perceived national security threats with trade restrictions. While the theoretical argument to equip government with tools to mitigate or eliminate national security threats by way of trade policy may be reasonable, this specific statute does little to ensure the president conducts a rigorous threat analysis or applies remedies that are proportionate to any identified threat.  There are no benchmarks for what constitutes a national security threat and no limits to how the president can respond. 

In delegating this authority to the president, Congress in 1962 (and subsequently) simply assumed the president would act apolitically and in the best interest of the United States.  The consequences of this defiance of the wisdom of the Founders—this failure to imagine the likes of a President Trump—could be grave.

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Freedom, Not Protectionism, Is America’s Greatest Achievement

Well, that was fast. Only a day after I said that we are likely to see increasing calls for protectionism citing alleged national security concerns, Scott N. Paul took to the pages of The New York Times to urge the imposition of new restrictions on steel imports based on this same justification. Long on attempted tugs at emotional and patriotic heartstrings, the piece is strikingly short on data suggesting U.S. national security has been imperiled by foreign imports. Indeed, to the extent Paul, who serves as president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, even attempts to make this case it is through the following:

Even in this digital age, steel undergirds our military power, not to mention critical infrastructure. Tanks, aircraft carriers and the energy grid all rely on high-strength, lightweight steel. That steel has been made in America for generations.

The security of our own steel industry, though, has been in doubt for a long time. Domestic steel production peaked in 1973. The industry is now operating at less than three-fourths of its capacity. Thousands of steelworkers have been laid off since 2015, and those still working know their jobs are under constant threat. Only one American company makes essential electrical steel, and only one other supplies the type of steel needed to make Virginia-class submarines, the generation of attack submarines that are expected to be in production until 2043.

This is thin gruel, with little on offer besides the banal point that steel is used in the manufacture of many defense platforms. Paul’s observation that steel production reached its apex 45 years ago, meanwhile, actually undermines his implication that a decline in steel production has been to the detriment of U.S. national security. After all, despite the steel industry operating below its production peak the United States has managed in the years since to conduct a massive defense buildup during the 1980s and engage in major conflicts in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan along with numerous other smaller-scale actions. And lest one think the steel industry has been in perpetual decline since 1973, a quick look at production statistics reveals current output to be rather unremarkable in the context of the last 30 years:

Raw steel production

Iron and steel products

Furthermore, as Clark Packard and Megan Reiss of the R Street Institute note, such production easily satisfies U.S. defense requirements with “only about 3 percent of steel shipped domestically in 2016 used for national defense and homeland security.” And while Paul appears to imply that one American company for electrical steel and one for the steel used in the production of a particular type of submarine are insufficient, he makes no mention of why this is a problem or what a more appropriate number might be. Moreover, should the United States experience a shortfall or inability to produce the product domestically there is no reason why it couldn’t fill this gap via imports. The United States, Packard and Reiss point out, does not lack for viable options should foreign sources be needed:

The United States also has a number of options to source steel from allies and non-hostile trading partners. In fact, of the top ten exporters of steel to the United States in 2016, only China could be considered a potential threat. Moreover, that threat becomes far less pressing when one considers how small a share China has of overall U.S. steel imports. China is only the source of 3 percent of American steel imports. Otherwise, 60 percent of imported steel mill products come from six other countries, none of which could plausibly be considered a threat to national security. According to the most recent available data from the International Trade Administration, between January and October 2017, the top exporter of steel to the United States is Canada, which accounted for 16 percent of imports during this period; Brazil, which accounted for 13 percent; South Korea, which accounted for 10 percent; Mexico, which accounted for 9 percent; Turkey, which accounted for 6 percent; and Japan, which accounted for 5 percent. 

Following his unconvincing case for steel tariffs on national security grounds, Paul then offers the following odd commentary:

Industry has been one of America’s greatest achievements. This is the nation that transformed itself into the arsenal of democracy, and with it won the last world war. Industry powered the country into a golden age of wealth and was a foundation of middle class prosperity.

Today America too often outsources the material to manufacture its prestigious projects, like the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, in a quest for savings. Half of the steel used in our energy pipelines is imported.

…Steel is our nation’s strength. Mr. Trump should remember that.

Both practically and philosophically this falls short. If one considers industry writ large to be one of this country’s greatest achievements then the fact that far more American workers are found in industries which consume steel rather than produce it—roughly 147,000 in steel production versus 6.5 million in domestic manufacturers that use steel in the production process according to Tori K. Whiting of the Heritage Foundation—is an excellent reason to eschew import restrictions. And why is the use of outsourcing to reduce infrastructure construction costs, thus saving taxpayer dollars and freeing up resources to be used elsewhere, presented as a cause for worry? 

More importantly, while industry has indeed proven to be an important source of American wealth and prosperity, it should be remembered that the foundation of such economic might firmly rests on this country’s commitment to individual liberty and freedom. It is this freedom, including to trade with those we wish, that is the country’s foremost triumph and that from which all other achievements have been realized. No country has barricaded its way to greatness, nor surrendered its freedom in exchange for prosperity. This is what President Trump should truly remember. 

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Antidumping 101: Everything You Need to Know about the Steel Industry’s Favorite Protectionist Bludgeon

Last week, invoking a seldom-used provision of a 1962 law, President Trump launched an investigation to determine whether steel imports present a threat to U.S. national security. An affirmative finding by the Commerce Department would permit the president to impose trade restrictions in response to the threat. But the real threat to U.S. national security is not an abundant supply of cheap imported steel. The real threat is a hyper-litigious steel industry intent on isolating the U.S. economy at enormous cost to downstream U.S. industries, exporters, and consumers. 

With the Trump administration full of steel executives and their lawyers one needn’t ponder too long to get the gist: U.S. trade policy is in the hands of an industry that accounts for 0.3 percent of U.S. GDP, has never had much interest in cultivating foreign demand for its products, has limited stakes in the global trading system, and is monothematic in its demand for aggressive trade law enforcement.

The wall of tariff’s protecting U.S. steel interests is already much higher than the walls erected to insulate virtually any other industry from foreign competition. Currently, there are 151 antidumping and countervailing duty (anti-subsidy) measures in force against most types of steel from most major exporters. And that severely impairs the competitiveness of America’s far more numerous, far more economically significant downstream, steel-using companies.

Under U.S. trade remedy laws, the authorities are prohibited by statute (on account of steel industry lobbying) from even considering the impact of prospective antidumping and countervailing duties on the operations of downstream companies. Absurd self-flagellation, right? The absurdity is magnified when you grasp that the duties paid by U.S. importers (i.e., the steel users), which are big enough deterrents to doing business with foreign suppliers in the first place, aren’t even the biggest concern. Under the seriously corrupted, capriciously-administered U.S. trade remedy laws, the importers don’t even know what their final duty liability is going to be until about one year (on average) after the product is imported.  The amount of duty paid upon entry of the product is an estimate of the duties that ultimately will be owed when Commerce gets around to “calculating” the actual incidence of dumping or subsidization next year.  Imagine getting a supplemental bill today for the groceries you purchased last April.  Would you even buy those groceries in the first place, without knowing the final price tag? Of course not. And that’s the intention of the retrospective nature of the U.S. trade remedy laws.

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Trump’s Trade Policy: Rhetoric vs. Reality

Donald Trump’s rhetoric on trade policy has been, to say the least, over the top.  The economic nationalism in his inauguration speech was particularly alarming. But there is a great deal of uncertainty about the extent to which his actual policies will reflect this rhetoric. As an example, look at what Trump said yesterday about requiring domestic materials (mainly iron and steel) in the construction of pipelines, and compare that to what he actually did.

First, here’s what he said as he signed a Presidential memorandum on “Construction of American Pipelines”:

This is construction of pipelines in this country. We are – and I am – very insistent that if we’re going to build pipelines in the United States, the pipes should be made in the United States. So, unless there’s difficulty with that because companies are gonna have to sort of gear up; much pipeline is bought from other countries. From now on, we’re gonna start making pipeline in the United States. We build it in the United States; we build the pipelines; we wanna build the pipe. Gonna put a lot of workers, a lot of steel workers, back to work. Okay. We will build our own pipeline. We will build our own pipes. That’s what it has to deal with. Like we used to, in the old days.

That sounds very strident and forceful: We will use American steel for American pipelines!

What he actually did, however, is much more nuanced. Here is an excerpt from the memorandum he signed:

MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF COMMERCE

SUBJECT: Construction of American Pipelines

The Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with all relevant executive departments and agencies, shall develop a plan under which all new pipelines, as well as retrofitted, repaired, or expanded pipelines, inside the borders of the United States, including portions of pipelines, use materials and equipment produced in the United States, to the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law. The Secretary shall submit the plan to the President within 180 days of the date of this memorandum.

So instead of there being an immediate requirement to use domestic iron and steel in pipelines, which is kind of how it sounded when Trump made the announcement, there will be an interagency consultations process to “develop a plan” within 180 days.  And under this plan, domestic iron and steel is to be used “to the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law.”  The “to the extent permitted by law” qualification is particularly relevant, as it could be interpreted to mean that the requirement would not apply if it violated international trade obligations, such as the non-discrimination rules in the World Trade Organization (WTO).  That is, the requirement which is actually applied after the plan is developed might exempt all countries who are members of the WTO.  If such an exemption were used, the impact of the requirement would be negligible, since most counries are WTO members.  (On a trade specialty blog I run, I explained why this kind of domestic content requirement would almost certainly violate trade obligations).  

The difference between the rhetoric and the possible reality here means that we still don’t have a very good idea of what U.S. trade policy under Trump is going to look like. At some moments, it seems like we are headed into uncharted protectionist territory; at others, it seems more like a continuation of existing policies, with minor modifications.  All we can do at this point is wait for concrete policy proposals and evaluate them as they come out.  Hopefully the reality will not match the rhetoric.

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Carrier Revisited

President-elect Donald Trump has claimed victory in his effort to preserve employment for Carrier workers in Indiana.  Assisted by $7 million in tax incentives provided by the State of Indiana, Mr. Trump persuaded the company not to move 800 furnace manufacturing jobs to Monterrey, Mexico.  This works out to a taxpayer-funded subsidy of $8750 per job. 

Another 1300 Carrier jobs still will move to Mexico between now and 2019.  Published reports have indicated that the company anticipated cost savings of some $65 million per year from moving all 2100 positions to Monterrey.  So Carrier is taking at least a partial step toward maintaining its global competiveness, while at least partially appeasing the incoming president.

I wrote an op-ed in Forbes on August 22, 2016, in which I argued that Carrier no doubt had quite good business reasons for planning the move to Mexico.  Carrier’s February 2016 announcement of the decision said that it was due to “ongoing cost and pricing pressures driven, in part, by new regulatory requirements.”  

Carrier has been manufacturing products in Monterrey for some years.  The company certainly has a clear understanding of why moving production of some air conditioning units makes business sense.  It would not be wise for them to explain their reasoning in public because such proprietary knowledge would be of great interest to their competitors. 

Some commentators have opined that the decision was driven largely by lower labor costs.  Carrier’s expenses for employee salary and benefits average about $34 per hour in Indiana, while those costs in Mexico are only around $6 per hour.  It’s possible the move was prompted primarily by labor cost savings, although my analysis of data compiled by The Conference Board suggests otherwise.  The value generated by an hour worked in the United States has risen by 40 percent over the past 22 years of NAFTA.  In Mexico, the gain has been only 10.5 percent.  Productivity has grown faster in the United States, so the incentive to shift production to Mexico today ought to be weaker than it was 10 or 20 years ago.  (Note:  Those figures apply to the productivity of all workers.  If it was possible to analyze just the manufacturing sector, perhaps the findings would change.)

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