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Trump taxes on foreign steel will boost U.S. mills, and hurt consumers, S&P says

"These actions will encourage domestic production, raise utilization rates, and keep domestic prices elevated."

Water hitting hot rolled steel causes steam to rise at ArcelorMittal Conshohocken. The mill laid off 150, about half its workforce, last fall.
Water hitting hot rolled steel causes steam to rise at ArcelorMittal Conshohocken. The mill laid off 150, about half its workforce, last fall.Read moreFile photo

President Trump's protectionist tariffs — the import taxes he is imposing on foreign steel and aluminum — will help U.S. steel and aluminum producers boost sales and profits, and encourage American steelmakers to make more metal and hire more workers, Standard & Poor's credit rating agency told clients in a report today.

Higher steel and aluminum prices will also "filter down to other sectors," pressuring car and truck makers, beer, soda, and soup can users, and building and bridge construction companies to raise their prices to  U.S. consumers, S&P added.

Trump's decision to slap tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum from foreign suppliers led by Canada, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, and Japan "is moderately positive for U.S.-based steel and aluminum producers. In our view, these actions will encourage domestic production, raise utilization rates, and keep domestic prices elevated over the next two to three years," the agency said in the report by a New York-based team of analysts led by Michael Maggi and William R. Ferrara.

Steel producers such as Philadelphia-based Carpenter Technologies, Kennett Square-based Phoenix Services International, Pittsburgh-based US Steel Corp. and AK Steel Corp., and aluminum processors led by Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, are among the companies S&P listed that could expect to benefit from the government tax on foreign competition.

Metal users are expected to pass higher costs along to customers. In a report Monday, Morgan Stanley analysts predicted that U.S. hot-rolled steel prices could rise from a recent $836 a ton to as much as $1,000.

Shares of two big canning companies based in the Philadelphia region, Campbell Soup Co. of Camden and Crown Holdings Corp. (the former Crown Cork and Seal), which is planning to leave its Northeast Philadelphia headquarters campus for smaller offices outside the city, are both down significantly since 2016.

Thanks to tariffs, some big American steel and aluminum producers, including U.S. Steel, AK Steel, and Alcoa, are likely to boost profits to the point where the companies will earn higher credit ratings, enabling them to borrow or refinance their debt at lower rates of interest, over the next two years, S&P said. U.S. Steel and AK Steel are rated B, while Alcoa is two notches higher at BB. Carpenter Technologies' credit is rated higher, at BBB-, while Phoenix is B; neither are on S&P's upgrade list at this time.

In addition to boosting prices, U.S. Steel and AK Steel, along with Nucor Corp. and some other large steel makers, could find it profitable to boost production from underused plants, S&P said, so long as the U.S. economy keeps growing as expected.

Higher production could lead to hiring by the shrunken U.S. steel industry, which Trump has called a major goal of his new import taxes.

American steel plants including the military and construction plate mills at ArcelorMittal's former Lukens Steel works in Coatesville and Conshohocken have laid off workers recently, as their owners declined to upgrade some production systems in the face of cheaper foreign steel. ArcelorMittal is one of the world's largest steelmakers, with plants in Europe and Asia as well as the Americas; S&P didn't estimate the net impact of tariffs on foreign and multinational companies.

Dura-Bond, a steel-pipe company based near Pittsburgh, has also laid off workers in the last year, while asking Trump to make good on campaign promises that would increase demand for U.S. pipe in big energy projects.

If U.S. steel production increases significantly, U.S. steel prices are more likely to stay in their current range; tariffs will keep them from falling. S&P says U.S. steel prices will still be affected by steel demand in China, which makes half the world's steel but is a relatively small exporter to the U.S.

By contrast with steel, the U.S. aluminum industry, which meets less than half of U.S. demand (the rest is imported from Canada and other countries), is already running its plants near full capacity. U.S. aluminum production won't be in a position to expand, even with tariff protection, unless Alcoa and other producers commit to "large amounts of capital spending to build new facilities, which would take years," and won't likely happen unless investors believe the tariffs are permanent, S&P concluded.