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US ports worry about steel tariff

By AI HEPING in New York | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-04-04 22:59

Houston's seaport handles the most imported steel of any port in the United States — 3.7 million tons last year. And that has Executive Director Roger Guenther worried.

"As a result, we are concerned that the 25 percent tariff on steel cargo could decrease cargo volumes, creating a detrimental impact on local jobs and the economy," he said.

Guenther isn't alone with his concern about US President Donald Trump's tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum that were imposed last month.

US steel manufacturers say the tariffs will let them create jobs, but many ports rely on imported steel that is subject to the tariffs.

It is important cargo at ports on the Gulf, West and East coasts and the Great Lakes. In addition to Houston, the top steel gateways include Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; Brownsville, Texas; Delaware River terminals and several ports in the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes.

"The ports are on the front line if some sort of trade war develops,"' Kurt Krummenacker, a Moody's senior vice-president/manager, told The Bond Buyer in March.

He said that Gulf ports including Houston, Mobile and New Orleans that have the largest share of steel and aluminum imports and are heavily into oil refining are probably the most affected. "If there is retaliation from trading partners, the risk could spread to other ports," he said.

"My greatest fear all along has been that an action like this could lead to retaliation that could affect our exports. I'm afraid that's where it could lead us," said Jimmy Lyons, CEO at the Alabama State Port Authority. "In a trade war, there are no winners."

The Port of Mobile handles about 5 million tons of steel annually, including about 3 million tons of imported slabs, and 250,000 tons of lighter aluminum.

New Orleans' port is third in the nation for steel imports, behind Houston and Mobile, spokesman Donnell Jackson said.

In 2017, the port handled 2.48 million tons of imported steel, accounting for 83 percent of its break-bulk tonnage and 30 percent of its total general cargo. The port took in 665,154 tons of aluminum traded on the London Metals Exchange in fiscal 2017.

Robert M. Landry, vice-president and chief commercial officer of the port, told a Commerce Department hearing in May that about 80 percent of New Orleans' steel imports are moved up the Mississippi River on barges.

The barges are then used by US farmers to deliver agriculture products to grain elevators on the Lower Mississippi River for export. Sixty percent of US soybean exports move through Lower Mississippi grain elevators, chiefly in the Port of South Louisiana between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

"Without those barges moving upriver, the cost to transport US grain increases, making US agricultural products less competitive with those in other producing countries like Brazil and Russia,"' he said.

Brandy Christian, president and CEO of the Port of Louisiana, said that imposing tariffs arbitrarily on steel and aluminum will hurt ports, the larger maritime community and steel-consuming industries.

In 2003, the port's steel imports fell 46 percent after President George W. Bush put tariffs on various imported steel products from a limited list of countries under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, she said.

Christian said that the port "supports the enforcement of all trade agreements, but an across-the-board action fails to recognize those countries playing by the rules".

She said that any retaliation by other countries against US exports is a concern for the Port of New Orleans and ports along the Lower Mississippi River.

"Louisiana is a leader in exporting the nation's agricultural products overseas, with a nearly 60 percent market share of export grain from the US Midwest," Christian said.

Stevedore jobs and port revenue will be affected by the steel and aluminum tariffs, said economist Loren Scott, emeritus professor at Louisiana State University.

A trade war could undo any benefits from Trump's recent tax reforms and industrial deregulation, Scott said. "Bottom line, unless you're in steel or aluminum, these tariffs are very bad economic policy. You can't put lipstick on a pig."

After the California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the largest importer of steel products on the West Coast is the Port of Vancouver in Washington. In 2017, the port unloaded 712,834 metric tons of steel.

Steel imports support 600 jobs at the port and account for 36 percent of its annual revenue, according to port executives. Most of Vancouver's steel imports come from Russia and Mexico, with some from South Korea and Japan.

"The main concern around a lot of this talk of tariffs (has to do with) China, and we don't import steel from China, it comes from these other countries," that could be unfairly targeted by broad tariffs, Ryan Hart, Port of Vancouver spokesman, told The Daily News in Longview, Washington.

More than 50 percent of the containers on ships leaving the Puget Sound go to China, according to the

Port of Seattle.

China is Washington's No. 1 export market, which added up to $18 billion worth of business last year.

"Our jobs in advanced manufacturing, in aviation, in technology, in agriculture, are creating export products for sale, and China is our largest market," said Andrew Wilson, Washington State China Relations Council chair. "When China puts quotes and tariffs on those products, those products won't ship. Those jobs in fact will be stagnated or lost."

Courtney Gregoire, Port of Seattle commission president and co-chair of the Northwest Seaports Alliance, representing Seattle and Tacoma, says "higher tariffs will jeopardize jobs in Washington and raise costs for consumers in a much wider range of industries".

As for the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, they have seen an increase in port traffic this year, Gaurav Purohit, a Moody's analyst, told the Bond Buyer. But he said steel represents less than 2 percent of revenues for those ports, so less of an impact from the steel tariff is anticipated.


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