‘Steady but Sloppy’ Fittingly Sums 2017

By Dan Markham, MCN Editor

In this month’s flat-roll market feature by Associate Editor Jonathan Samples (Page 14), Esmark CEO Jim Bouchard described the business conditions in 2017 as “steady but sloppy.” That also happens to be a pretty accurate description of the year as a whole for the metals industry.

On the steady side we find the consumption picture. While demand for steel and other products didn’t enjoy massive growth in 2017, shipments from service centers have been up consistently since the start of the year. Domestic steel mills in the U.S. have enjoyed similar gains, with crude steel production up 3.1 percent for the year to date, though imports absorbed some of those consumption gains.

Automotive has seen a notable slide from its peak in 2016, but modest gains in other end markets have offset that. There hasn’t been an overwhelming shift in either direction from any major consuming sector.

Pricing has also remained relatively stable over the course of the year, in defiance of the more volatile recent past. Ongoing trade cases, plus greater strength around the world leading to lower spreads between U.S. and foreign offerings, including Chinese material, have helped keep the price elevated despite low raw material costs.

It’s what’s happened outside the fundamentals of the industrial economy that has been rife with sloppiness. Regardless how one feels about the ultimate merit and value of the Section 232 trade case, its roll-out was undeniably bumpier than necessary. The Commerce Department set a self-imposed June deadline to deliver a report on the effects of steel imports on the domestic industry, which prompted a last-minute wave of imports coming ashore in the hopes of beating any hard ruling on 232. But the deadline came and went without action, frustrating the steel production community. Moreover, in the time since then, end-use consumers, foreign producers and other interested parties have been lobbying the administration to soften the ultimate determination.

Section 232’s rougher than anticipated ride to implementation is consistent with some other Trump administration objectives the steel industry supports. Repeated attempts to overhaul Obamacare came up empty, and tax reform is moving slower through Congress than hoped for.

And it seems the much-desired infrastructure rebuild has not simply been moved to the backburner, but taken entirely off the stove and shoved back in the pantry. A hot topic early in the calendar year, action on spending on public works has been replaced by talk of other administration objectives, and there’s been no Beltway clamor to renew the push for roads, bridges and other needed upgrades.

The steel supply chain has, for the most part, managed to navigate the sloppiness of 2017. Here’s hoping that 2018 promises a much neater ride for all of the participants.