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Trump slaps tariffs on steel and aluminum imports

AbackPhotography/ThinkstockPhotos A close-up of the corrugated aluminum side of a grain silo.
Tariffs will be 25% on imported steel and 10% on aluminum.

by Joe Deaux, Andrew Mayeda and Toluse Olorunnipa 

President Donald Trump said the U.S. will slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports to protect national security, a major escalation of his hawkish trade agenda that could hit producers from Europe to Asia and spur global retaliation. 

After on-again, off-again signals of an impending announcement that sent producers’ stock prices seesawing, Trump said he will impose tariffs of 25% on imported steel and 10% on aluminum for “a long period of time,” and he expects to sign a formal order next week. The president didn’t elaborate on the details of the planned action, including whether any products or countries will be exempted. 

“We’ll be imposing tariffs on steel imports and tariffs on aluminum imports,” Trump told metals industry executives at the White House on Thursday. “Some time next week we’ll be signing it in. And you’re going to have protection for the first time in a long time.”

The S&P 500 Index slumped to session lows, U.S. stocks for companies that consume the metals like Ford Motor Co. fell, and Treasuries climbed as investors reacted to the news, while shares of U.S. steel and aluminum producers jumped. Canada, the biggest foreign supplier of steel to the U.S., said the measures are unacceptable while the European Union vowed to “ react firmly” with World Trade Organization-compliant counter-measures in the next few days. 

The punitive measures will level the unfair playing field that has persisted for years and make it easier for American companies to expand and hire workers, Trump said. 

Trump’s decision drew sharp rebuke from some in his own party.

“Let’s be clear: The President is proposing a massive tax increase on American families,” said Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. “You’d expect a policy this bad from a leftist administration, not a supposedly Republican one.”

Stock Movements 

Trump’s statement followed hours of confusion. Staffers in the White House scrambled Thursday morning to explain what was happening with the expected tariff announcement, ducking in and out of offices in the West Wing as they sought information about the president’s plans.

On Wednesday night, Trump was set to announce stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum, and industry CEOs were sent a last-minute invitation to the White House for the unveiling. Early Thursday, White House aides confirmed the announcement was coming. But later in the morning, they said it was postponed. 

Stocks including AK Steel Holding Corp., U.S. Steel Corp. and Century Aluminum Co. jumped on anticipation of the tariffs announcement, then retreated following mid-morning reports that no announcement was expected Thursday. Trump’s statement pushed them back up again.

Amid the tumult, the tariff event was re-billed as a “listening session” with chief executives, including ArcelorMittal USA’s John Brett, Nucor Corp.’s John Ferriola and Century Aluminum Co.’s Mike Bless. At that meeting, which was opened up to the press, he announced the tariffs. 

At 2:50 p.m. in New York, Century was up 6% and AK Steel climbed 8.4%. Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel advanced 5.5% and Charlotte, North Carolina-based Nucor Corp., the largest American producer, advanced 2.8%. Aluminum prices rose in London, while the premium to deliver metal to the U.S. Midwest jumped the most since at least 2013.

Behind the Scenes 

The day’s drama mirrored prior behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Trump has previously made up his mind on steel and aluminum tariffs, only to have staff argue him into delaying, two people familiar with the matter said. 

Despite more warring Thursday, Trump dug in.

“Going to get the papers done now?” Trump asked Wilbur Ross as reporters left the meeting with industry executives.

“Yes,” Ross said.

Trump had been considering a range of options to curb imports of steel and aluminum, after the Commerce Department concluded that shipments of the two commodities hurt U.S. national security.

A U.S. move on tariffs may provoke retaliation from China, the world’s biggest steel and aluminum producer. China has already launched a probe into U.S. imports of sorghum, and is studying whether to restrict shipments of U.S. soybeans -- targets that could hurt Trump’s support in some farming states. While China accounts for just a fraction of U.S. imports of the metals, it’s accused of flooding the global market and dragging down prices.

China Talks

Trump announced the tariffs as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s top economic adviser, Liu He, is scheduled to meet Trump’s senior economic team in Washington -- including White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. 

Foreign government officials have traveled to Washington in recent days to voice their concern about tariffs. Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo was said to warn the administration about his country’s plans for retaliatory measures. Trump is also under pressure from members of his own Republican party to tread lightly to avoid triggering global retaliation and amid concerns of higher prices for consumer goods.

However, American steel producers and workers have called on Trump to defend their industry as it grapples with the effects of overcapacity in China.

Last April, the president ordered Commerce to study the impact of steel and aluminum imports on national security under the seldom-used section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act. Commerce submitted its final reports to the president in January.

--With assistance from Justin Sink and Jennifer Jacobs.

To contact the reporters on this story: Joe Deaux in New York at [email protected]; Andrew Mayeda in Washington at [email protected]; Toluse Olorunnipa in Washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at [email protected]; Brendan Murray at [email protected]; James Attwood at [email protected]

Sarah McGregor, Mike Dorning

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P

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