US tube mills find peril in 232 tariff math

Electric-resistance-welded (ERW) tube mills in the United States, who for nine months have vociferously supported a Section 232 action, are feeling uneasy now that President Donald Trump has issued a 25% tariff on steel imports.

The 25% tariff might not be enough to keep much of the unfairly traded imports out of the US, Zekelman Industries executive chairman and chief executive officer Barry Zekelman said on Thursday March 8. He would have preferred the US Commerce Department option that proposed tariffs of at least 53% on steel imports from 12 particular nations, dubbed the ‘Dirty Dozen.’

Zekelman doesn’t think a 25% tariff is sufficient to ward off steel imports from those countries.

“This is our real worry,” he told American Metal Market. “The flow from the ‘Dirty Dozen’ – the real offenders – I don’t know if it changes. We need to see higher tariffs and/or quotas.”

The need to stymie unfairly traded imports is particularly acute for tubing producers. ERW mills face the highest level of import competition of any steel sector, with imports accounting for 60% or more of the US market share.

Domestic tubing prices have soared as the Section 232 investigation caused hot-rolled coil to jump in the US but not elsewhere, and the formalization of Trump’s action could place additional stress on domestic tube mills and other sheet consumers.

American Metal Market’s hot-rolled coil index jumped to $41.56 per hundredweight ($831.20 per ton) on Thursday. The index was below $30 per cwt as recently as November. 

“This is not a good scenario for the downstream users of coil,” a second ERW mill source said on Thursday. “Our costs for raw coil will go up and may price us out of the market… Commercial construction will slow as the dramatic increase in raw material costs, i.e. structural steel, will delay jobs.”

Additionally, Trump on Wednesday signaled a willingness to exempt various nations from the Section 232 tariff, subject to further negotiations that might be tied to military partnerships. The president named Canada and Mexico as provisionally exempt, pending favorable concessions in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

As many of the US’ other largest sources of imported steel are also close security allies, those nations are likely to seek exemptions. The US domestic tubing community hopes South Korea, in particular, is not exempted.

United Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard is notably critical of South Korea and said the Section 232 action needs to aid the US mills that produce oil country tubular goods (OCTG).

South Korea focuses on producing vast quantities of OCTG even though it lacks a domestic oil and gas industry and “doesn’t drill one inch in their own country,” Gerard said at a pro-tariff press conference on Wednesday, adding that South Korea is a culprit in the circumvention problem that exacerbates the negative impact of Chinese overcapacity.

“China and South Korea have ganged up to destroy our market,” he said.

Zekelman agreed that South Korea should not be exempt from the Section 232.

“I would fight that tooth and nail,” he said, noting that one of his customers is instead ordering South Korean material this week, notwithstanding the Section 232 remedy. “He’s buying from [South] Korea because our prices have gone up, and they’re cheaper than us, even with the 25%.”

Zekelman also specifically noted Turkey and India as two other countries that should not be exempt, nor should any of the 12 nations on Commerce’s list.

The geographic impact of the Section 232 will also be different within the US and varies per item, according to market participants.

“The West Coast market is red hot right now” for domestic producers because imports offers dried up in the run-up to Thursday’s tariff, a third tube mill source said.

“Importers don’t necessarily ship [much] welded mechanical tube into the heartland of this country,” a fourth mill source said. “They do, however, ship into port cities up and down the eastern and western seaboards, along with Houston to some extent. The mechanical tube that does come into this country is typically shapes like ½-in square through 2-in square and equivalent rectangles. We rarely see round welded mechanical tube brought in[to] the US.”

Tubing providers wonder if their coil costs will keep going up even after end-users have slowed their buying.

One southern distributor said purchase orders remain strong but eventually his customers will feel the sting of sticker shock.

“I’m looking at [purchase orders] coming in, and some of the mom-and-pop shops that usually have a $6,000 order, their [purchase order] now looks more like $11,000 or $12,000, and that is going to start to affect things,” he said. “Can people absorb these prices? I don’t know where the line is.”