Tariff Impacts on Structural Steel Markets
The Section 232 tariff began as a recommendation from the Department of Commerce at the conclusion of a nine-month investigation into the effects of imported steel on national security. Based on its findings, Commerce recommended a 24% tariff on a wide range of steel products that would affect many industries, not just construction. On March 1, 2018, the President announced his intention to impose a 25% tariff, and then issued an Executive Order which implemented these tariffs on March 23.
As for the precise impact of a tariff on steel projects, the answer is that it will depend. However, a 25% tariff on imports does not mean a 25% increase in the overall cost of a project. First, the cost of material is just one of several components in the cost of a steel structure. And while percentages vary from project to project, even if the full impact of a 25% tariff on material cost was passed on to a project, it would likely impact the cost of the steel package by 5-10%, and the total project cost by less than 2%. But ultimately, whatever percentage of a tariff-based cost increase is passed on to the market will be determined by the market itself. And of course, AISC is never involved in individual pricing decisions, and has no control over marketplace pricing. Engineers and contractors with specific pricing questions should contact an AISC Member Fabricator to discuss individual projects.
It is also important to put any discussion of construction material costs in context, as the factors that affect costs have never been static. For example, over the past four years, the index cost of ready-mix concrete has increased by 17%, while the index cost for steel has declined. These tariffs also apply to rebar imports as well as structural products, so it will also affect overall costs for concrete. So on any individual project, the actual impact of a tariff will need to be evaluated against overall market factors, just like any other volatility in material costs.
Finally, the cost of steel construction is responsive to market forces, and the structural steel industry operates in a competitive environment. AISC has long believed that the best way to increase the utilization of domestic steel is to increase the size of the market, and has advocated for market-building activities that keep structural steel as the material of choice for America’s great buildings, bridges and infrastructure projects.
On March 23, 2018 the United States imposed a 25% tariff under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 on imported mill steel including structural shapes, plate and hollow structural shapes (HSS). However, these tariffs don't apply to imported fabricated structural steel. By leaving fabricated structural steel off of the tariff list, the Administration has created a loophole in which foreign fabricators cay buy tariff-free steel, fabricate it, and ship it into the United States without penalty, circumventing U.S. trade policy intended to strengthen the steel industry, not weaken it.
While originally exempt, Canada, Mexico and the European Union are now on the list of countries included in these tariffs. The only countries not subject to these Section 232 tariffs are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and South Korea.
Imports of fabricated structural steel from Canada have more than doubled in the last five years, increasing from 125,000 tons in 2012 to 255,000 tons in 2017. Imports of fabricated structural steel from Mexico have increased 11% from 202,000 to 225,000 tons in the same time period.
Now that tariffs have gone into effect on mill steel only for our previous trading allies, we expect to see additional increases to fabricated imports in order to circumvent the existing 232 Order.
Additional information about Section 232 tariffs can be found below:
On August 8, 2018, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) released its list of approximately $16 billion worth of imports from China that was be subject to a 25% tariff as part of the U.S. response to China’s unfair trade practices related to the forced transfer of American technology and intellectual property. The list contained 279 of the original 284 tariff lines proposed, including those the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) requested for inclusion in its two separate testimonies in front of the USTR Section 301 Committee. This is the first time that tariffs have been extended beyond mill products to include fabricated structural steel, and went into effect on August 23, 2018.
To read AISC's most recent testimony given by David Zalesne, chairman of AISC and president of Owen Steel Company, Columbia, S.C. (an AISC member and certified fabricator), click here.
Charlie Carter, president of AISC, said, "On behalf of AISC and the American structural steel industry, we appreciate USTR's willingness to listen, and commend the USTR for including fabricated steel tariff codes on the current list for action under Section 301. This is a very positive step toward protecting downstream users that have been left exposed to foreign fabricators circumventing current 232 trade actions."
Since 2010, imports of Chinese fabricated structural steel have increased by 290% and now represent nearly 40% of the world’s fabricated structural steel imported into this country. In fact, of all the fabricated steel imported into the U.S., China’s share has more than doubled in the last decade and will continue to increase unless action is taken. Over the past decade, China has been subject to anti-dumping and other trade remedies on raw steel products. In response and in an effort to evade those U.S. trade actions and grow the market for its steel, China retooled its subsidized manufacturing apparatus to produce more downstream fabricated products, which are not subject to existing trade remedies.
Additional information about Section 301 tariffs can be found below: