David Wolff said he’d never seen such chaos as the hours counted down to the deadline for President Donald Trump’s imported steel and aluminum tariffs to kick in.
“It’s a mess,” he told Bloomberg news. “It’s the Wild West.” That’s because Wolff is CEO of a Rust Belt steel company that supplies manufacturers across a range of goods, and about two-thirds of the steel he buys from Europe and Asia would be subject to 25 percent tariffs if and when they are fully enacted. He wasn’t sure what to expect on supply, or what to do about pricing, and no one knows what will happen.
Trump delivered an eleventh-hour stay for many U.S. trading partners, including the European Union and South Korea, and had previously exempted Canada and Mexico while training his sights on China. In the short term, that makes the scenario less dire for factories and workers that rely on imported metals.
The last-minute exemptions cover countries that supply more than half of the $29 billion in steel the U.S. imported last year, but they target China – and China is fighting back with trade-war tariffs of its own. While initially not aggressive, they have the potential to impact agriculture and other sectors, and the economic uncertainty has been disrupting global financial markets for a diverse group of firms.
In the long term, though, U.S. manufacturers still have to manage uncertainties the tariffs are likely to create in supply chains, transportation and logistics. While American steel and aluminum producers are positive about the benefits to their own industries, the Steel Manufacturers Association was dismayed by Trump’s reprieve. Yet even the Aluminum Association, representing a U.S. industry decimated in recent years with closure after closure of its smelters, wanted to protect American manufacturing.
“A more targeted approach on tariffs will also protect vital supply chains for the 97 percent of U.S. aluminum workers in mid and downstream manufacturing processes,” the association noted. That’s because a total net loss of 470,000 jobs would follow full implementation of the tariffs (the 25 percent on steel as well as 10 percent on aluminum), according to a March 13 study from Trade Partnership Worldwide. That amounts to 18 jobs lost – in construction, the automotive sector, food processing and beverages, insurance and financial services, electronics – for each job the tariffs are meant to protect.
“It’s hard to overstate just how bad an economic downturn could get,” said David Gauze, Advertising Manager for Auto Body Toolmart, a Chicago-area automotive supply company. “For each of those jobs there are others that depend on them, and the multiplier effect has consequences for communities.”
There’s no question that the U.S. steel and aluminum production sector has capacity to meet some of the demand, and would benefit from the higher prices it might command. Yet that’s not a win-win for kitchen appliance or HVAC system manufacturers and ultimately their consumers who will pay for any imposed tariffs out of their own pockets. It also remains to be seen how quickly American companies can ramp up steel and aluminum production that depends on hiring labor to staff long-idled plants, and there are few realistic scenarios in which U.S. facilities could immediately keep up with the market.
A reversal in fortune for the steel mills of Cleveland or Gary, Indiana – for decades, the biggest steel-producing state in the nation – would be no small thing for American manufacturing, but the crisis in those industries has spanned decades. Forty years after “Black Monday” in Youngstown, Ohio, much of the Campbell Works facility that once employed thousands of workers has been torn down. The U.S. Steel Ohio Works plant closed in 1979, and Republic Steel in 1984. Obviously Youngstown isn’t poised to promise American-made steel to American manufacturing firms without years of reinvestment first, and even then it would mean making the shift to the technology-driven processes of the modern era. That story is replicated across the nation, where the lights and the lines won’t start up at the flip of a switch.
“Along with questions about the capacity at American plants are concerns about the infrastructure that connects them,” Gauze adds. “It’s not just the steel, but the logistics needed to make capacity useful.” In other words, even if American steel and aluminum production took off, there’s likely a bottleneck in the transportation and logistics sector: Drivers, warehouses, rail systems and more need to be prepared too.
Given Trump’s decision to walk back tariffs – at least for now, where American allies or NAFTA partners are concerned – some of those adverse effects may be softened for companies caught in the middle and the customers they depend on. Higher prices and tighter supplies may be unavoidable, any Chinese retaliation bears watching, and Trump’s threat to use quotas instead of tariffs may still become reality.
In the meantime, manufacturing companies that have developed relationships and plans for dealing with steel and aluminum supply contingencies are ahead of the game, and others should heed the warning that it’s past time to catch up.