'Happy with tariffs': Steel industry emerges as trade war winner

1. Blockbuster profits: The trade war has cast a shadow over parts of Corporate America, but it is b...

Posted: Jul 30, 2018 8:03 PM
Updated: Jul 30, 2018 8:04 PM

1. Blockbuster profits: The trade war has cast a shadow over parts of Corporate America, but it is bringing a bit of good fortune to the steel industry.

President Donald Trump's metal tariffs have sent steel prices surging and sparked blockbuster profits for steel manufacturers.

Reliance Steel & Aluminum hauled in record sales, thanks to an 18% spike in prices. Nucor recorded the best second quarter in its history. Its profit more than doubled.

"All in all, we're very happy with tariffs," Nucor CEO John Ferriola told analysts earlier this month.

Those words haven't been uttered by many other corporate bosses, who are grappling with sticker shock.

Tariffs levied by the United States and major trading partners are eating into the profits of Harley-Davidson, General Motors, General Electric, 3M and hundreds of other companies. CEOs are scrambling to raise prices and reshuffle their supply chains.

Unsurprisingly, steel companies are feasting on a price spike from Trump's 25% steel tariff. The benchmark price of US-made steel has zoomed 41% higher since the start of the year to $917 per short ton, according to S&P Global Platts.

Related: Corporate America is caught in the crossfire of trade war

Tariffs aren't the only factor. Steel demand is strong in an economy that just clocked its fastest growth since 2014.

Following the booming profits from Nucor and Reliance, US Steel and AK Steel are scheduled to report results this week.

Both steel makers are expected to reveal a jump in revenue, though not by as much as their rivals. That's because US Steel and AK Steel are locked into annual contracts that have fixed pricing. Those contracts expire later this year, potentially allowing them to capitalize on the price hikes.

Nucor is seizing on the momentum to plow $1 billion back into its business, a huge increase that will mostly go toward expansion.

"What will happen to our great country if we continue to operate with a massive trade imbalance?" Ferriola asked. "We agree with the administration's efforts to address this issue."

Of course, steel customers are less than thrilled.

Material costs have risen by as much as 50% at FJM Ferro, a Brooklyn company that fabricates steel used in Manhattan skyscrapers.

Steel companies "may have record profits, but it does hurt the mom-and-pop shops," said Joe Casucci, FJM Ferro's founder and CEO.

Even large companies are getting squeezed. GM slashed its profit outlook last week, warning of a $300 million jump in commodity costs linked to higher steel and aluminum costs.

"You have to be careful with tariffs because there's always a cost," said Philip Gibbs, a steel analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets.

He pointed out that spiking US steel prices threaten to make American businesses less competitive. Some companies may eventually try to find other ways to get steel into the country.

"It feels good in the short run as prices go up," Gibbs said. "But then all the customers complain."

Related: How the US economy is doing now in four charts

2. Jobs report: Economists are expecting another solid month of gains when the Labor Department reports Friday on job growth for July.

The US economy has cranked into high gear, growing at the fastest pace in almost four years, and unemployment is 4%, near the lowest in a half-century.

Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect 195,000 jobs were created in July, roughly in line with the average for this year.

3. Fed watch: The Federal Reserve is not expected to raise interest rates when it meets on Tuesday and Wednesday. But investors will be watching the Fed's statement closely for its read on the economy and clues about interest rates.

The Fed has signaled that it plans two more rate hikes this year and three in 2019.

4. Critical moment: This may be the most closely watched earnings report in Tesla's history.

The electric car maker reports results on Wednesday. Tesla just hit an important target for production of the Model 3, its most accessibly priced car. But Tesla is trying to stop mounting losses, and Elon Musk keeps making headlines with bizarre tweets.

5. Apple earnings: Apple will release is quarterly results on Tuesday, and a strong report could push the most valuable company in America to a milestone - a $1 trillion market cap.

Analysts may question Apple executives on whether the trade war its hurting the bottom line. And Apple fans will be hunting for hints about the next iPhone.

6. Coming this week:

Monday - Caterpillar earnings

Tuesday - Eurozone second-quarter GDP; Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Apple earnings

Wednesday - Fed statement; Humana, Sprint, Tesla earnings

Thursday - Bank of England meets; Berkshire Hathaway, Yum Brands, Aetna earnings

Friday - US jobs report; Kraft Heinz, Toyota earnings

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