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Here’s one likely byproduct of President Biden’s unexpected decision so far to maintain most of Donald Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies – including undermining the workings of the deeply anti-American World Trade Organization (WTO): shoddy or just plain incoherent attacks on these economic nationalist measures seem certain to be just as numerous as they were during the Trump years. Indeed, two have just been released.

In the shoddy category is a Reuters article from yesterday reporting that American manufacturers are suddenly very short of steel, that prices are therefore soaring to extortionate and profit-killng levels, and that the Trump steel tariffs – among the previous administration’s measure that Mr. Biden has so far decided to keep – are largely to blame. Even worse, the piece tells us (and entirely predictable according to standard economic theory), the protected U.S. steel industry is taking full advantage by keeping its own production low, and therefore maximizing upward pricing pressures and therefore its own profits.

Yet the statistical basis for these claims falls apart on close analysis. Author Rajesh Kumar Singh starts off by writing that

Domestic steel mills that idled furnaces last year amid fears of a prolonged pandemic-induced economic downturn have been slow in ramping up production, despite a recovery in demand for cars and trucks, appliances, and other steel products. Capacity utilization rates at steel mills – a measure of how fully production capacity is being used – has moved up to 75% after falling to 56% in the second quarter of 2020 but is still way below 82% in last February.”

That’s not, however, what’s said by the Federal Reserve, the offical source of U.S. capacity utilization data. Its tables show that for iron and steel products, capacity utilization rates stood at 76.03 percent last February, and at 77.84 percent last month. Where I learned ‘rithmetic, that’s an increase. Moreover, since bottoming last May, just after the worst of the CCP Virus and shutdowns’ first wave, it’s up 56 percent.

Indeed, steel’s capacity utilization performance is especially impressive – and especially destructive to Singh’s article – given that from last February to this past January, capacity utilization in domestic manufacturing overall is down slightly (by 0.60 percent).

And what Singh somehow left out is that during that same period, different Fed tables show, while overall manufacturing production adjusted for inflation dipped by 0.75 percent, iron and steel products output was off by just 0.71 percent.

His reporting is no more responsible on U.S. steel prices. Yes, they’ve risen strongly lately. But that’s largely because they fell so steeply almost immediately after the tariffs went on, in February, 2018. As made clear by the (chartreuse?) line from the chart below, from the respected consulting firm IHS Markit, they’re still much lower than they were three years ago. Nor, contrary to another claim of his, do they look much different from Chinese and European prices.

Global hot rolled steel prices

In the incoherent category is a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), widely seen as one of the gold standard for American economics, whose main theme is that, contrary to the Trump administration’s claims, American consumers and businesses, not the Chinese or any other foreign countries, paid all the costs of the Trump tariffs.

I’ve repeatedly pointed out the lack of evidence for this contention. (See, e.g., here).  Today, however, I’m more interested in a finding made along the way by the three blue-chip economist authors: When it comes to steel, “The data show that U.S. tariffs have caused foreign exporters…to substantially lower their prices into the U.S. market.”

What they didn’t do is ask themselves why and, even more important, how this could be. That’s especially puzzling because the answer obviously is that foreign steel industries are subsidized by foreign governments. Consequently, they don’t face the same earnings pressures as their U.S.-owned counterparts, and can stay in business – and even ramp up production – despite major price cuts.

So the idea that there’s now or for decades has been free trade in steel has no basis in fact, and anyone who keeps ignoring this global landscape can’t possibly place any value on America retaining a steel industry worthy of the name – or on any definition of free trade that’s remotely reciprocal and therefore sustainable, not to mention one that serves U.S. economic interests realistically defined.

At least as important, as I’ve noted before, anyone blasé about huge quantities of artificially cheap foreign steel flooding into the United States can’t be serious about ensuring that the American economy is predominantly influenced by free market forces of any kind, or about understanding the central importance of productivity gains in spurring technological progress and even durable prosperity.

For the record shows that the recent wide availability of subsidized, cut-rate steel has provided the steel-using industries generally with a crutch that’s relieved them of the need to anchor satisfactory profits in ever-improving efficiency – and kneecapped their productivity performance. And since steel is hardly the only imported product subsidized by foreign governments, there’s no reason to believe that this kind of economic damage is limited to steel-users.

All the same, a continuing flood of trade and tariff fakeonomics may produce a silver lining.  As long as the Biden administration hews to the Trump line, at least the American people will still have an Executive Branch with an interest in pushing back strongly.