SSS XXXIII: Aggrieved downstream buyers should lobby Trump – trade attorney

Steel and aluminium purchasers in the United States who feel cheated by the Section 232 tariffs should take the matter up with President Donald Trump, who likely would be sympathetic, according to a trade attorney who represents domestic producers.

Alan Price, a partner at Washington law firm Wiley Rein LLP, urged downstream buyers to ask the president to erect import barriers for their products too. Defending American goods from import competition is “an ideological viewpoint” that Trump has held sincerely for decades, Price told attendees at the Steel Success Strategies XXXIII conference in New York on Tuesday June 26. 

Fabricators and other manufacturers who need to procure steel or aluminium have complained that Section 232 caused their costs to soar, enhancing the competitiveness of competing finished products from overseas that are not subject to tariffs. Price said during a panel talk – entitled “Steel Marketplace: Winning Strategies”  – that it’s worthwhile to pursue relief from the White House, and some influence might also be exerted on Capitol Hill. 

“The Trump trade agenda is not going away,” Price said at the event, co-sponsored by American Metal Market and World Steel Dynamics Inc. “Pressure from the Hill will have some effect.”

The remarks were made during a Steel Success Strategies face-off between the domestically oriented Price and fellow trade lawyer Donald Cameron, who represents foreign producers and importers of their goods. 

Cameron bluntly stated that the Section 232 orders are “bogus” and a “sham” and an “illegal action” that is “metastasizing” in the form of retaliation that will “have a cascading effect on the economy as a whole.” Close US ally Canada “got screwed” and multiple important American industries “have been sold out” by misuse of a law that is supposed to help preserve national defense readiness, he added. 

“Steel imports are not a national security issue, get it?” according to Cameron, a partner at Washington-based Morris, Manning & Martin LLP. “That kind of results-oriented approach to a rules-based trading system is a mistake.”

Trump erred in particular when he “decided to play the fight as the US against the world instead of the US against China,” he said, warning that the protectionism will come back to haunt the US. 

While most of the discussion revolved around trade topics, Ryerson president and chief executive officer Eddie Lehner issued a passionate reminder not to forget customer service. 

Lehner said trade frameworks do need to be more transparent, and circumvention is a serious problem. Ultimately, if the US industry can do a better job of delivering the exact products that end-users need at the promised arrival time and help them cope with price volatility, perhaps customers wouldn’t shop around for as many imports.

“It’s a great industry but something is broken… Deliveries are perpetually late!” he said, noting that future buyers of metal goods certainly will not be saying “I wish they would cost more. I wish there were less selection. I don’t care when I get it.”

Investment in customer service in the industry has been insufficient for 25 years. New technology – including digitization and artificial intelligence – is necessary to help track material and get it shipped promptly, Lehner noted, also emphasizing that companies’ culture needs to evolve to stop taking customers’ loyalty for granted.