As steel tariffs squeeze U.S. businesses, uncertainty threatens economic growth

Zach Davis straps down a steel coil at the Borusan Mannesmann Pipe plant in Baytown, Texas, Without a tariff waiver, Borusan may face tariffs of $25 million to $30 million annually if it imports steel tubing and casing from its parent company in Turkey.
(Loren Elliott / AP)

“We’re in the dark, just like everybody else,” said an executive of a West Coast steel importer.

“This administration has been supposedly pro-business, but business doesn’t like uncertainty,” groused a distributor of stainless steel, who, like others, requested anonymity to avoid antagonizing officials.

These should be good times for American manufacturers, construction firms, canners and others that use industrial metals for their business. The U.S. economy is perking along, and tax cuts and global growth are helping boost demand.


But since President Trump abruptly slapped hefty tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of imported steel and aluminum on March 23, the outlook has turned hazy for many — downright bleak for some.

The tariffs have brought higher prices for many manufacturers and construction firms and considerable uncertainty for both importers and domestic manufacturers of steel and aluminum.

When Trump issued the tariff orders, he gave temporary exemptions to a handful of the biggest steel and aluminum exporters to the United States, including Canada, Mexico, Brazil and the European Union. But those exemptions are set to expire on Tuesday.

At the same time, the Commerce Department is supposed to rule on hundreds of requests for exemptions from U.S. manufacturers who say that domestic firms can’t supply the particular types of metals they need.

As of the weekend, the Commerce Department had posted tariff-exclusion requests for about 650 steel importers, but roughly 5,000 more hadn’t been publicly listed on its website, including some that were submitted more than a month ago.

Commerce officials haven’t explained what’s causing the delays, but they could be costly for businesses. That’s because if a user of imported steel gets a tariff exclusion, it would be retroactive to the date on which its request was posted.


The latest from Washington »

California Steel Industries, which buys slabs from Brazil, Mexico and Japan, submitted a waiver request on March 26. It’s still waiting for its submission to be posted, said Brett Guge, executive vice president of the Fontana-based company. He won’t comment on how the tariffs have affected business so far, but he made clear that the uncertainty is a problem.

“If we could get out from this cloud over our heads, we’ll have a good year,” he said.

The Commerce Department says it would take 90 days to review an application, but the agency will be hard pressed to meet that time frame given the thousands of requests in the pipeline.

An extension or permanent exemption of the tariffs for Canada, Mexico and others would ease Commerce’s workload and help end users in the U.S., but no one knows which countries will get relief or on what basis that decision is being made.

“You’ll know when the president makes his announcement,” was about all that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross would say Friday when asked about the tariff exemptions at a business journalists’ conference in Washington.

Additional temporary exemptions will keep companies in limbo. Some are scrambling to find alternative sources for the steel and aluminum they import. Others say they may have little choice but to stick with the same supplier and eat the tariffs.

Domestic substitutes are not readily available for businesses like Mapes Piano String Co. in Tennessee, which buys premium-quality wire rod from Japan.

ARC Automotive says no steel producer in the U.S. has the equipment to make the high-performance tensile-strength tubing it uses to manufacture its air-bag inflator.

“It is our desire to support strong domestic tinplate production,” Seneca Foods Corp., the largest U.S. vegetable canner, said in its letter seeking an exclusion from tariffs for its imports of metal from China. After meeting with its two domestic suppliers, Seneca said, it was unclear whether they have the ability or the willingness to expand tinplate production.

Trump’s metal tariffs, 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum, are meant to protect domestic producers from foreign competition. The president issued them in the name of national security. But while the penalties may bring more business to U.S. mills, the companies which buy metals to manufacture products and construct projects have started to feel the sting of higher prices and supply disruptions.

For commercial builders, the cost of rebar and other metals already have gone up 15% to 20% from early this year. On fixed projects, that’s the difference between making a profit or losing money, said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for Associated General Contractors.

U.S. steelmakers say fears of supply shortages are unfounded, but there’s widespread uncertainty and confusion about what lies ahead.

Mexico and Canada could well get an extension as they work toward a deal with the United States to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Others may not be so lucky. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in visits last week to Washington, tried to persuade Trump to lift the tariffs, but apparently to little avail. That means the EU could soon fire back with counter-tariffs on a range of U.S. exports.

If history is a guide, they will target iconic American products such as Kentucky whiskey, denim jeans and Florida orange juice, to put maximum political pressure on U.S. lawmakers.

The EU accounts for about one-fifth of all U.S. steel imports, which were about $29 billion in 2016. Canada is the largest individual supplier of steel to the United States. Total imports of aluminum were about $13.6 billion in 2016, of which more than 40% came from Canada.

If the tariffs are made permanent, the effect on prices and supplies will ripple through many industries, some of which will be passed on to consumers.

Given the size of the American economy — steel and aluminum account for only about 2% of total imports — the overall impact to the national economy figures to be relatively modest. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimated a long-term hit of a quarter of a percentage point to U.S. gross domestic product.

A full-fledged trade war, however, would have a much larger effect.

“Depending how reactions unfold, there could be potent implications for economic activity,” said the Dallas Fed’s Michael Sposi and Kelvinder Virdi. And this doesn’t include the administration’s looming, potentially far more costly trade conflict with China.

Domestic metal producers have urged Trump not to let up on the pressure. “Tariffs should be imposed for any country that does not agree to negotiate quotas,” said Mike Bless, chief executive of Century Aluminum, in a statement over the weekend. Century is banking on the tariffs to help it restart idled lines at its Kentucky smelter and bring back 300 jobs.

Even for domestic producers, however, uncertainty about the status of the tariffs has created problems.

“There needs to be no more delays, no more extensions on this,” said John J. Ferriola, chairman and chief executive of the Nucor Corp., a major steelmaker in the U.S.

In a conference call April 19 with analysts, he said it was hard to predict what would happen. Either way, he said, “I can assure you, there’s going to be no shortage. There’s a tightness in the marketplace certainly. That’s a result of demand improvement. The economy is better. Demand is up.”

“If steel needs to come into the country, it will come in,” he said. “People will pay the tariff, and they’ll bring the product in, and they’ll bring it in a fair price.”

More stories from Don Lee »

Follow me at @dleelatimes