Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

The U.S. Dollar Is Stronger Than Steel

The U.S. industry is battling a tide of cheap imports

When John Pierpont Morgan bought Andrew Carnegie’s steel business and combined it with two competitors to create U.S. Steel in 1901, the result was the world’s first billion-dollar corporation. Its roughly $1.4 billion market value would translate into about $33 billion in current dollars. But the company is worth less than a tenth of that today, at just under $2.5 billion.

While the steel industry has been fading in the U.S. for decades, things have gotten worse recently. A strong U.S. dollar, combined with a slowing Chinese economy, is bringing unprecedented amounts of cheap, foreign steel to the U.S., swamping domestic producers. Average monthly imports spiked by almost 1 million metric tons in 2014, a 38 percent increase from 2013. Through June of this year, steel imports averaged 3.3 million metric tons a month, roughly the same as last year. A lot of that is coming from China, the world’s largest producer. Although its economy has cooled, leading to the first dip in steel demand there in a generation, China’s mills have kept chugging along. Much of the excess output is being shipped overseas. In the first half of this year, China’s steel exports rose 28 percent compared with the same period in 2014.

The recent devaluation of the yuan could make Chinese steel even more attractive to U.S. buyers. Exports from Brazil and Russia have also jumped as the real and ruble have fallen sharply against the greenback.

U.S. producers have had no choice but to pull back. Andrew Lane, an analyst at Morningstar, expects U.S. steel production to come in at around 85 million metric tons this year, down from 98 million in 2007. “I don’t think we’ll get back to that level until 2020,” Lane says.

Things are particularly hard for U.S. Steel, the country’s No. 2 producer after Nucor. The company lost money in the first two quarters of this year and has laid off more than 1,700 employees, shaving its total workforce to 34,000. “The strong dollar is the icing on the cake,” says Mario Longhi, U.S. Steel’s Brazilian-born chief executive officer. Longhi says foreign producers have been unfairly dumping steel in the U.S. for several years, and trade laws need to be revamped to deal with the problem. “Our laws have not caught up to the 21st century,” he says.

Since June, U.S. steel producers have filed three trade cases with the Department of Commerce, alleging that countries including Brazil, China, Japan, and South Korea are either benefiting from government subsidies or selling steel abroad for cheaper than they do at home, in violation of international trade laws.

Although a strong dollar is particularly bad for companies at the beginning of the supply chain, such as steel producers, it’s weighing on the entire U.S. industrial sector. After growing faster than the rest of the economy during the early years of the recovery, manufacturing activity, as measured by the ISM Manufacturing Index, dropped to its lowest level in two years in August. Manufacturing is on pace to post a record trade deficit for the third straight year. That’s dampened some of the enthusiasm around the “reshoring” trend of companies bringing outsourced factory jobs back to the U.S. Rising wages in China have helped make U.S. workers more competitive. But a stronger dollar, coupled with a slowing China, could blunt those gains, says Harry Moser, founder of the Reshoring Initiative, a group of companies and trade associations bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. “That’s my biggest concern.”

The bottom line: American steelmakers have filed trade cases alleging foreign rivals are dumping in the U.S.

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