The U.S. Steel Industry Likes Tariffs, but Are They the Right Move?

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In the wake of President Trump's decision to impose a 25% tariff on imported steel and 10% tariff on imported aluminum, the steel industry in the United States has added some capacity and jobs. Conversely, some industries that consume steel have expressed concerns over the cost increases caused by the tariffs.

In this segment from Industry Focus: Energy, analyst Sarah Priestley is joined by Motley Fool contributor Daniel Kline to break down which industries are happy and which are upset over the tariffs. This includes companies in construction, the automotive industry, and many others that employ millions of people.

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A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on March 22, 2018.

Sarah Priestley: So, obviously, we've touched on some companies and industries that are going to be affected by this. Steel, very happy. It's been hailed by a lot of steel executives and union leaders. They've promised new investments and restarting multiple mills. [laughs] It's like we said.

Dan Kline: [laughs] Yeah.

Priestley: It's how well-targeted that is. U.S. Steel, ticker X, they're up 10% year to date. They're reopening one of two idled Granite City blast furnaces in Illinois. Nucor, ticker NUE, they're up 5%. They've said tariffs will pave the way for their own expansion plans, and they've followed this up, announcing that they're building a new mill in your state, Florida, which would employ about 250 people. Now, Nucor uses electrical mini-mills which are easy to switch on and switch off, so they're bound to be a lot more competitive, whereas you have AK Steel, who fell almost 50% last year, they're actually sitting out this rally. The issue is they use conventional blast furnaces. Much harder to remain competitive. So, maybe, it's as you said about looking at your processes and learning and working out, how can we invest to become more efficient?

Kline: A lot of the industries -- I'll go back to my family business. Ladders used to be made in the United States. For a long time, they were made in Mexico, because they didn't automate, they just used cheaper labor. Now, ladders are made largely in China in completely automated factories. So, you really have to invest, you have to figure out how to do it with the least people possible. And hopefully the benefit of the company being stronger creates jobs in other areas. We're not going to have a new nation of steel workers. That seems very unlikely.

Priestley: Yeah, despite what some people are claiming. So, aside from steel, there's been angry reactions from steel-consuming industries, which we've touched on. There are so many. We've already talked about construction. Auto manufacturers. Matt Blunt, who's the president of the American Automotive Policy Council, said, "We're concerned with the unintended consequences the proposal would have, particularly that it will lead to higher prices for steel and aluminum here in the United States." He goes on to say that the U.S. automotive industry supports almost seven million American jobs, and it would put us at a competitive disadvantage. That's a very fair point to make. We've seen other calls from the beer industry. Anheuser-Busch InBev CFO said, about two million jobs depend on the American beer industry, and she urges the Department of Commerce and the U.S. President Trump to reconsider the impact. So, you can see there's very far-reaching. General consensus from businesses across the board is that this is bad. However, anybody looking at a price increase of any amount is going to be --

Kline: And I think it's the companies you haven't heard from. Boeing has been very quiet on this, because the biggest market for planes is not the United States, it's China. So, they're going to have a cost increase and a country that's buying from them that may not want to take the product. So, politically, you can't be for it, you also can't be overly against it. So, I think there's an undercurrent of absolutely, this will benefit certain businesses. But it's going to hurt others. And some will gain in one area and hurt in another. We don't really know exactly how it's going to pay out. Budweiser says that, but you can buy beer in other fashions.

Priestley: [laughs] There's glass bottles. Maybe plastic.

Kline: Maybe glass bottles will go up. Maybe it's time they figure out how to do a box of beer.

Priestley: Oh, wow, that's dangerous. I mean, it's essentially, a lot of industries that it's effecting are cyclical, too. And that's where another problem layers in. You have, auto sales are reaching a peak or plateauing, and in the heavy machinery industry, it's just starting to see a pickup. Caterpillar Director of Investor Relations Amy Campbell said the tariffs would impose a challenge and, again, put Caterpillar at a competitive disadvantage. So, all of these industries that feel themselves at a very vulnerable position are having this added on top of that.

Kline: And I think you're going to see secondary protectionism measures come of this, that where there's unintended consequences, maybe they'll increase tariffs on importing cars. Maybe there will be a tax break to buy a U.S. made car. But, even figuring out what a U.S. made car is has become very tricky because parts are made here, and they're assembled there, and it's very much like omni-channel in retail. It's not pure digital, it's not in-store. But, there's absolutely going to be laws that come about because of this, if the tariffs, in fact, go into long-term effect.

Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Sarah Priestley has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends BUD. The Motley Fool recommends NUE. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.