So How Is The Domestic Steel Industry Doing Anyway?
“A financially strong, technologically-advanced, and environmentally-sustainable steel industry in the United States is essential to serving the material and security needs of American society today.”
So wrote Thomas Gibson, president of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, arguing in favor of taking action against steel imports on national security grounds, and suggesting that the US steel industry was not so well off. Gibson’s public comments came in connection with a Commerce Department Section 232 investigation into steel imports.
President Donald Trump, the ultimate decider on the issue of steel import tariffs, up until recently at least, appeared sympathetic to Gibson’s line of thought. “They’re dumping steel and destroying our steel industry,” Trump was quoted by Reuters as saying. But last week, the president intimated that the results of the investigation, expected for some time now, would not be forthcoming anytime soon. (In an earlier article, we explained why the president may never get around to imposing sweeping restrictions on steel imports.)
So how is the steel industry in the United States doing? Many companies are doing quite well. The Commerce Department publishes information on the profitability of the six largest domestic steel producers—AK Steel, Carpenter Technology, Commercial Metals, Nucor, Steel Dynamics and US Steel—and its latest report, from April 2017, shows that four of the six producers are currently profitable and that the industry has been profitable overall since 2009. In the first quarter of 2017, five of the six companies returned total profits of $695.6 million. Even considering US Steel’s loss, the industry’s net profit was $515 million for the quarter.
Carpenter Technology, Inc. reported net sales from aerospace and defense at $981.5 million in its 2016 Annual Report, accounting for 54 percent of Carpenter sales in its last fiscal year. Carpenter also reported “solid third quarter results” reflecting “revenue growth across our diverse end-use market portfolio…” “Conditions across most of our markets have continued to improve,” said Tony Thene, Carpenter’s president and CEO, in the report.
AK Steel reported higher margins in the first quarter of 2017, with net income and adjusted earnings increasing substantially over the same period last year. Adjusted earnings were $142.9 million for the first quarter of 2017, compared to $81.1 million for the first quarter of 2016.
There are even reports of steel startups in the US. Big River Steel in Osceola, Arkansas, began production in January, 2017 with a run of 63,000 tons. Big River is an electric-arc furnace (EAF) producer with a capacity of 1.6 million tons of steel per year.
The US industry also continues to invest in infrastructure and R&D. In 2012, Outokumpu Stainless USA acquired a $1.6 billion stainless steel plant from ThyssenKrupp in Calvert, Alabama, while ATI invested $1.2 billion in a hot-strip mill in Pennsylvania which opened in 2015.
On April 7, 2017, AK Steel opened a research and innovation center in Middletown, Ohio. The $36-million, 135,000 square-foot facility as part of its focus on “driving leading edge products and processes…”
As for the money-losing US Steel, it is largely an integrated mill, heavily dependent on blast and basic oxygen furnaces to produce steel from iron ore. The new Big River, on the other hand, reflects the trend in steel production away from large, expensive basic oxygen furnaces and toward more flexible mini-mills whose electric arc furnaces make steel from scrap metal.
The Commerce Department normally investigates and applies punitive duties on narrow categories of products from specific locations. For those antidumping and counterveiling duties to stick, the International Commerce Commission must separately find that dumping or subsidies actually hurt domestic producers. That may be the case for specific steel products emanating from specific overseas producers. But to argue that steel imports globally hurt the domestic industry as a whole is something of a stretch, to say the least.