What’s next for the former Trump administration’s aluminum tariff?

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tariffs headline over $100 bills

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Whether the new Biden administration creates a more insightful or sophisticated approach to trade remains to be seen.

But, if nothing else, a new administration is a chance for a reset on policies that have not worked as intended under a previous administration.

Aluminum tariff policy

The previous administration’s Section 232 tariffs on aluminum of 10% were well intentioned. The tariffs aimed to try to reverse the decline in US domestic aluminium smelting capacity.

In recognition of aluminum’s role in defense and aerospace applications, the government viewed the growing level of imports as a threat to national security. As such, creating a barrier to imports intended to allow US smelters to operate profitably and encouraged firms to reopen idled capacity. Furthermore, the hope was that, in time, firms would open new smelters.

The previous decade had been brutal for the US aluminium smelting industry.

By 2017, capacity utilization had fallen to 37%, according to Reuters.

Many hailed the strategy as a savior for the smelting industry. However, consumers would ultimately have to pay the bill.

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Flaws in the plan

But even accepting that the COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a far from typical year, it has become clear the tariff strategy has not worked on a number of levels.

While the inflationary cost of finished goods has been minor, the aluminum content even of a can of beer is a small fraction of the total product cost. It remains true that consumers have had to foot the bill.

It was always the intention that domestic producers would raise their prices to the import plus tariff price. The corresponding uplift was what was supposed to allow them to operate profitably again, to arrest the decline and reopen idled capacity.

Annualized production rose to 1.15 million tons at the end of 2018 from 750,000 tons a year earlier. The increase, however, proved short-lived. By the end of last year, national annualized production had fallen to 920,000 tons and capacity utilization to about 50%, Reuters reported.

Equally worrying the post states, there has been no new smelting capacity. The United States remains as dependent as ever on imports of primary metal.

Aluminum tariff and Canada

Buyers will remember the spike in prices that followed the reinstatement of tariffs on Canadian aluminium predicated on the “surge in imports,” as the Trump administration claimed at the time.

The reality was Canadian-origin metal had simply made up for the absence of Russian metal following Rusal’s pivot away from the US, largely to Asian markets, following the earlier sanctions on owner Oleg Deripaska. Russian imports collapsed from 725,000 tons in 2017 to only 136,000 tons last year. Shipments from Canada simply filled the gap, rising 10% in 2019.

The previous administration seemed to accept that imports from Canada should not be considered a strategic risk. Ultimately, it removed the tariff in September 2020.

But what of potential suppliers elsewhere? Would it not be of value to the US to widen its non-tariff supply base?

Biden rescinded permission to exempt the UAE recently for what seemed like political rather than national security reasons. China has never exported primary metal, so it remains irrelevant to this policy.

The years ahead

How the US handles imports of semi-finished products going forward will be the topic of a separate post. The US has inherited a fractious trade landscape as a result of the last few years.

It does so at a time of a fundamental re-evaluation of its trade priorities. Many would argue that re-evaluation is long overdue.

That re-evaluation includes its relationship with China. In that vein, the US is better off by working in cooperation with its allies and neighbors than the unilateral policies of the previous administration that have largely failed to deliver benefits.

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