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Steelmakers Flummoxed by Trade-Policy Flux

Aug. 27, 2019
American steel manufacturers say the uncertainty caused by the President's metal tariffs makes planning investments difficult.

U.S. steelmakers, intended beneficiaries of President Donald Trump’s metal tariffs, are as unsettled as anyone else by all the headspinning policy changes.

Trump last week announced fresh levies on Chinese imports and warned he could order American companies to pull out of China after the Asian nation said it would impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods. On Monday, Trump said prospects for a trade deal were better now than at any time since talks began last year.

“We need more stability and certainty in our public policy, and that’s the one thing all companies like, whether you’re a 21st Century steelmaker or you’re in another industry,” Philip Bell, the president of the Steel Manufacturers Association, said in an interview at the Steel Market Update industry conference in Atlanta. “You want certainty so you can plan investments and hire people.”

The trade war’s latest twists and turns have sent global equities on a roller-coaster ride, and producers including U.S. Steel Corp., Nucor Corp. and Steel Dynamics Inc. haven’t escaped the tumult. The S&P Supercomposite Steel Index has posted four straight weekly declines amid concerns that U.S.-China trade tensions hurt the outlook for global demand.

The S&P steelmaker gauge is headed for the fifth monthly decline in six.

There are signs that American steel executives -- many of whom cheered when 25% levies were unveiled last year on steel imports -- are growing restive in the wake of Trump’s cascading tariff battles. In June, some pushed back against his abrupt announcement that he intended to slap tariffs on Mexican imports. More recently, JSW Steel (USA) Inc., which had lauded the levies, said the U.S. wrongfully denied waivers for steel-slab raw materials, forcing the company to pay tens of millions of dollars in tariffs.

At a panel discussion at the conference on Monday, Kurt Russell, the president of Precoat Metals, was asked for his opinion on navigating the current trade environment.

“Let me turn my phone on and check my Twitter account,” he said.

By Joe Deaux

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