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Section 232 outlook clouded as timing on action slips

Aug 03, 2017 | 08:00 PM | Fastmarkets AMM staff

A missed deadline, stiff opposition from export-oriented industries, and mixed reactions to meetings with Commerce have stirred concern.

As AMM Magazine went to press, U.S. steelmakers were anxiously awaiting word from the Trump Administration on the outcome
of the Commerce Department’s Section 232 investigation into steel imports.

Top steel industry executives were said to have met with Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross (photo right) in mid-July
with one industry analyst predicting at the time that a decision could be imminent.

Other industry sources said they had left recent meetings with administration officials with little idea of when Commerce might
conclude its probe or what remedies it might recommend to slow imports.

“While the recommendation from the (Commerce Department) to the administration has pushed past the June end deadline
initially targeted, we understand it could be provided this week,” Seth Rosenfeld, an equity analyst at New York-based Jefferies
LLC, wrote in a July 19 research note. Commerce is expected to provide a “menu” of various potential options to the administration to select from. “But the administration’s decision may not be made public until next week, after previously scheduled meetings with Chinese government officials,” he added in the note.

The U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue as well as North American Free Trade Agreement reform talks have taken up the bandwidth of trade officials also tasked with the 232, Washington sources said. Those discussions mean any major developments
on the 232 could be pushed into late July, they agreed at the time.

Nonetheless, Ross reportedly found time on Tuesday July 17 to meet with the top executives of six domestic steelmakers, according
to two sources familiar with the matter. The group was said to include John Ferriola, chairman, president and chief executive officer
of Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor Corp.; David Burritt, president and chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp.;
John Brett, chief executive officer and president of Chicago-based ArcelorMittal USA LLC; Roger Newport, chief executive officer
of West Chester, Ohio-based AK Steel Corp.; Ward “Tim” Timken Jr., chairman, chief executive officer and president of Canton,
Ohio-based TimkenSteel Corp.; and Barbara Smith, who will become president and chief-executive officer of Irving, Texas-based Commercial
Metals Co. (CMC) on Sept. 1.

Mark Millett, president and chief executive officer of Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Steel Dynamics Inc. (SDI), had meetings with Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer the second week in July.

“They understand the issues of trade and they are working to recommend to (President Donald Trump) restraints... that will make the environment for steel healthy again,” Millet said during an interview with CNBC in which he confirmed the meetings.

An AK Steel spokeswoman, while declining to confirm the meeting with Ross, said the company continued to support a robust 232.

“We urge the administration to implement a comprehensive, broad-based import remedy, covering the full range of steels, with only limited exceptions for products not currently available in the United States,” she told AMM via e-mail.

Other steelmakers contacted by AMM either did not confirm whether the meeting had occurred or did not respond to requests for comment.

A Commerce spokesman did not respond to requests for comment regarding the 232 time line and the steelmakers’ meetings with Ross.

Accounts of meetings with administration officials on 232 weren’t uniformly positive. One industry executive said he left a meeting
with Ross with the sense that the Commerce Secretary wanted to take action soon, but was unsure whether action might be days or weeks away.

In contrast, another industry source familiar with the meetings said he was left with the impression that action was probably not imminent. “The new narrative here is managing expectations and lowering expectations,” he said.

A Washington source said steel consumers who met with Vice President Mike Pence about the 232 in mid-July came away equally short on specifics. “It was, ‘Thank you for coming in. Appreciate your comments. A decision will be made,’” is how he described the exchange. “No time lines. No winks or nods or body language about whether that decision is in the pipeline or what the eventual outcome might be.”

Such mixed reactions come as the 232 faces stiff opposition from several major steel-consuming industries. “If the Section 232 investigations into steel and aluminum result in new trade barriers, the aftermath could be disastrous for the global trading system and for (the) U.S. agriculture sector in particular,” 18 agricultural industry associations wrote in a July 11 letter to Ross.

The letter landed after the Commerce Department missed a self-imposed June deadline and amid continued speculation over whether and when a 232 decision might be announced. While some sources insisted in mid-July that Commerce would make a move soon, others said that action might not come until as late as this fall.

The latter scenario is more likely if the administration decides to use the threat of the 232 to position U.S. trade negotiators to roll out policies aimed at combatting global steel overcapacity ahead of a November deadline, agreed at a Group of 20 (G20) meeting in early July.