Talking Tariffs, Part 2: Section 232 History Since 1962

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[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of our three-part series on how tariff impacts — positive or negative — are perceived, the history of Section 232, and China’s role in the global steel marketplace (and how that has affected the U.S.). In case you missed it, Part 1 can be read here.]

The Bush tariffs of 2002 came as a result of a Section 201, as opposed to a Section 232 investigation. The Trade Act of 1974 covers Section 201 investigations, whereas Section 232 derives its authority as part of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, based on national security grounds.

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MetalMiner conducted an analysis of every single Section 232 case initiated since the passage of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. The results suggest market observers need to dig into the details further to see why various presidents have taken action on imports of particular commodities, as well as what types of action they have taken.

Section 232 has been invoked 26 times.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of ITC data

Of the seven times in which a primary metal industry initiated a Section 232 investigation, in only one case — this most recent one — did the president determine action was necessary to adjust imports. However, in one of the cases, President Ronald Reagan agreed to update the National Defense Stockpile.

Of the seven times in which a derivative metal industry (nuts, bolts, bearings, parts) initiated a Section 232 investigation, in no cases did the president conclude action was necessary to adjust imports. However, in one case, for metal cutting and metal forming machine tools, Reagan deferred a decision on Section 232 and instead sought voluntary agreements with foreign suppliers; indeed, one went into effect for a period of five years and was extended for two additional years.

In all other cases, the only industry that received Section 232 relief has been petroleum or oil. Now that the U.S. has achieved energy independence, MetalMiner suspects the U.S. will not see a case made under Section 232 for this commodity (so long as the U.S. remains energy independent).

The U.S., however, is not steel independent, meaning the U.S. does require some level of imports to satisfy domestic demand.

Historical analysis suggests the U.S. has filed about the same number of anti-dumping cases today as it did in the late 1950s-1970s. The difference today, though, comes down to the imposition of duties; far more are implemented today than during that earlier time period.

Logically, as tariffs have steadily declined, imports have grown, while today the number of products targeted for anti-dumping measures has declined since the 1980s.

What Has Changed and Why Should Anyone Care?

In a word: China.

In 1960, China produced a total of 18.5 million tons of steel, whereas the U.S. produced about 6 million tons. Incidentally, the price of a ton of steel in 1962 was $144/ton — or $1,180/ton in today’s dollars!

It wasn’t until 1996 when China first produced 100 million metric tons of steel. And the real growth happened after China ascended to the WTO in 2001, growing steel production from 128.5 million metric tons in 2000 to nearly 495 million metric tons in 2007.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of World Steel Association data

Obviously, as China’s economy began to grow, steel demand also grew. Any market observer would also expect production to increase to support economic growth.

Perhaps the more interesting statistic to examine is production against demand. By looking at the production figures above, one might assume that demand also steadily increased since 2007.

But did it?

Source: MetalMiner analysis of World Steel Association data

In a word: no.

China’s demand peaked in 2013 at 772 million tons, declined and then reached 767 million tons in 2017, whereas China produced 779 million tons in 2013 (a little higher than demand). But in 2017 China produced 831.7 million tons for a surplus of 64.7 million tons.

2018 statistics show China produced more steel than any year in its history — 923 million metric tons, according to Reuters, against a demand projection that is at best flat to slightly up from 2017, based on a MetalMiner analysis. Assuming demand of 780 million tons, that would suggest a surplus of over 140 million metric tons.

U.S. demand and production, in contrast, appears paltry.

It should come as no surprise that the Trump administration has taken significant steps to shore up the domestic industry against Chinese imports.

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The only study that takes into consideration these factors, such as actual demand and actual supply, involved the original Department of Commerce studies on Section 232.

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