The historic bull market faces off against steel tariffs

Friday marked the ninth anniversary of the stock bull market, the second longest since World War II following the spectacular run in the 1990s that finally met its match when the tech bubble burst in March 2000. The current expansion, which some consider the “most hated bull market in history,” has largely been fueled by extraordinarily accommodative monetary policy in the form of massive money printing and near-zero interest rates. It’s withstood a number of significant headwinds, including a relatively slow economic recovery, the collapse in the price of oil and other commodities, the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and an especially nasty presidential campaign cycle. If it can avoid dropping more than 20% in the next six months, it will become the longest-lasting ever.

No doubt you’ve heard before that bull markets don’t die of old age. I can’t say for sure what will end this particular business cycle—no one can—but we’re seeing huge shifts in monetary and fiscal policy right now that investors can’t afford to ignore. As I often say, government policy is a precursor to change.

Unintended Consequences of Steel Tariffs

For one, the decade-long era of easy money is coming to an end. The Federal Reserve is unwinding its enormous balance sheet, which carries some risk.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is ratcheting up its protectionist trade policies. After surprising markets in recent days with plans to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, President Trump signed the authorization Thursday afternoon, applying taxes broadly to all countries except Canada and Mexico. It was greatly feared that Canada, the number one supplier of steel and aluminum to the U.S., would be included, but it appears someone managed to change the president’s mind. When former President George W. Bush imposed a steep 30 percent tariff on steel imports in 2002, Canada was likewise spared.

The 2002 tariff, by the way, had some serious unintended consequences that critics of Trump’s policy hope are not repeated. A report put out by the Consuming Industries Trade Action Coalition (CITAC) found that about 200,000 Americans, in every U.S. state, lost their jobs in 2002 as a result of higher steel prices, representing some $4 billion in lost wages. More people, in fact, lost their jobs than the total number of people working in the domestic steel industry itself. Not surprisingly, a quarter of lost jobs occurred in steel-consuming industries such as machinery and equipment, automotive and parts manufacturers.

To be clear, U.S. steel companies did benefit from the tariffs, with profits in the first three quarters of 2002 rising $2.1 billion. This growth was offset, though, by a $15 billion decline in profits for steel-consuming companies.

Today, representatives of those same industries warn that the current tariffs could do more harm than good.

Roy Hardy, president of the Precision Metalforming Association, claims that they “will damage downstream U.S. steel and aluminum consuming companies.” Hardy estimates the tariffs could cost the U.S. economy 146,000 jobs this year alone, a figure that—as was the case in 2002—outnumbers the 140,000 Americans currently employed by the domestic steel industry.

As many as 107 House Republicans expressed deep concerns last week, writing in an open letter to the president that the “new taxes in the form of broad tariffs would undermine” the “remarkable progress” made by the tax overhaul. Meanwhile, outgoing Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said he would introduce a bill that would block Trump’s tariffs.

The tariffs come at a time when domestic steel producers’ balance sheets are steadily improving. According to Bloomberg data, the industry posted net profits totaling $2.5 billion in 2017, up from $60 million in 2016. The group lost a whopping $2.5 billion in 2015, with Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel contributing the heaviest losses at $1.6 billion.  

In the coming days and weeks, the tariffs should serve to boost domestic steel production and employment. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. Steel has plans to reopen a blast furnace in Granite City, Illinois, and call back 500 workers. This follows an announcement by Century Aluminum that it will double its workforce to 600 at a Kentucky smelter.

I’m pleased to hear this news but remain skeptical on the long-term impact. The U.S. now faces retaliation from its trading partners, from China to the European Union.

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