By Alan Tonelson

March 6, 2018

If there’s anyone out there who honestly believes that global steel trade has anything to do with free trade or free markets, and that many of America’s leading trade partners other than China are directly or indirectly complicit in rigging this commerce against the United States, here’s some data you need to see.

And P.S. – notwithstanding their own efforts to keep government- subsidized Chinese metals out of their markets, and the lip service they pay to the idea of cooperating to cut China’s massive overcapacity, the number of countries whose steel industries in particular have been doing just fine all the same should make clear why World Trade Organization (WTO) and other multilateral actions can’t possibly address the underlying problem of the Chinese state-sponsored glut. At least not until via tariffs or similar measures, Washington makes clear that the economies, who comprise the vast majority of WTO members, can no longer abet the Chinese with impunity.

First, let’s look at the percentage of world steel output by country (or political grouping, in the case of the European Union), and how it’s changed recently. These are volume figures from the World Steel Association for the world’s leading steel producers:

2010                                                   January, 2018

US:    7.46                                                           4.89

China:   42.62                                                    48.05

EU 27: 12.18                                                    10.32*

Japan:   7.73                                                        6.48

South Korea:   4.12                                             4.39

India:   4.82                                                         6.47

Vietnam:   0.30                                                    0.76

Taiwan:   1.39                                                      1.41

Turkey:   2.06                                                      2.28

Brazil:   2.32                                                        2.06

Russia:   4.48                                                       4.09

Thailand:   0.29                                                    0.30

Canada:   0.92                                                      0.82

Mexico:   1.18                                                      1.16

Argentina:   0.36                                                  0.25

South Africa:   0.54                                             0.41

Egypt:   0.47                                                        0.47

Australia:   0.51                                                   0.35

* The January, 2018 figures are for 28 European Union countries.

What leaps out from these statistics: Except for Australia, the country that has lost the greatest percentage of global output share by far during this period has been the United States. And everyone else has either gained or pretty much held their own. Anyone care to explain this development by arguing that the United States has the world’s least competitive major steel sector? By a mile?

Next let’s take a look at changes in steel-producing countries’ exports to the United States over the last year. In and of themselves, they don’t prove that these economies are transshipping steel to the American market to help Beijing evade recent U.S. tariffs on Chinese steel, or that they have been responding to their own China steel problems by ramping up their exports to the United States. But the size and suddenness of these export increases is certainly noteworthy. In particular, it’s kind of amazing how much surge capability these figures make clear is apparently possessed by smallish countries.

Here’s how America’s steel imports have increased by volume in percentage terms from some important steel producers between the third quarter of 2016 and the third quarter of 2017, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s latest figures:

global total: +19.56

China: -5.0

India: +209.0

Russia: +64

Taiwan: +36

Thailand: +274

South Africa +68

United Arab Emirates +98

Many of the value figures, drawn from the U.S. International Trade Commission, are even more striking. (These numbers cover iron and steel products and their percentage increases between full-year, 2016 and full-year, 2017.) Some of these percentage increases reflect the “law of small numbers” – the ease with which modest increases in absolute terms can generate big relative increases when the baseline is low.

But all of the below countries sold at least $13 million worth of iron and steel products to the United States in 2017. Also, all of the below increases followed sizable, and some cases enormous, decreases between 2015 and 2016, when overall U.S. imports fell by 25.7 percent. And this list leaves out countries whose iron and steel exports to the United States grew in both years, but ramped up rapidly in 2017. The main examples are Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Kazakhstan, and Peru.

World: 35.6

China: 15.2

EU 28: 19.4

Japan: 1.6

South Korea: 21.2

India: 88.8

Taiwan: 33.1

Brazil: 51.8

Russia: 98.1

Australia: 65.4

Thailand: 213.7

Canada: 26.6

Mexico: 27.4

Argentina: 198.6

Albania: 583.5

Bahrain: 26,148.1

Belarus: 116.9

Colombia: 96.6

Georgia: 57.0

Guatemala: 430.1

New Caledonia: 70.7

New Zealand: 64.8

Oman: 81.1

Pakistan: 41.1

Peru: 127.4

Philippines: 147.1

Saudi Arabia: 794.5

Ukraine :111.1

United Arab Emirates: 123.7

Zimbabwe: 376.1

These data paint a compelling picture of the world’s leading steel producers complaining endlessly about the distortions created by China’s state-created global steel glut – to the point of creating a special multilateral forum for addressing the issue – but playing footsie with the Chinese behind the scenes at American steel producers’ expense. Which places a heavy burden of proof on opponents of President Trump’s response to explain how this situation bears any resemblance to free trade, and why broad-based tariffs aren’t an absolutely essential response.

So You Think There’s Free Trade in Steel?, Industry TodayALAN TONELSON
Alan Tonelson is Founder of the blog – which covers a wide range of domestic and international policy issues along with political and social trends.

For 18 years before leaving to launch RealityChek, Tonelson followed the impact of globalization on the U.S. economy, domestic manufacturing, and U.S. national security for the U.S. Business and Industry Council. This national business organization represents nearly 2,000 domestic American companies, most of them small and medium-sized manufacturers.

Alan Tonelson is a regular columnist with Industry Today.

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