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Tariffs put a dent in Tampa steel shipments

TAMPA — Tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on steel and aluminum are putting a dent in local steel shipments, Port Tampa Bay officials said Tuesday.

The tonnage of steel going through the port — most of it comes in — dropped more than 8 percent for the nine months ending in June compared with the same months last year.

For 2017, the port handled 247,871 tons of steel products during that period. This year, the total so far is 228,874 tons.

One port tenant, Titan Metal Service, has "slightly" reduced the amount of steel it's bringing in, co-owner Chris Bush said. Titan brings in rolls of steel that it cuts into sheets or ribbons that manufacturers fashion into a variety of products.

This spring, Trump tweeted that "trade wars are good, and easy to win" as his administration increased tariffs, or import taxes, by 25 percent on steel and by 10 percent on aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. In retaliation, those countries raised tariffs on targeted U.S. goods.

Consequently, the price of steel, both foreign and domestic, has risen from about 48 to 60 cents per pound since last year.

BRACING FOR IMPACT: Tampa Bay area and Florida businesses expect tariffs to drive up prices

"The prices have pretty much stabilized, but it remains high," Bush said.

At the moment, demand is holding up, he said. That said, the increasingly fluid foreign trade landscape has a knack for throwing curve balls. Earlier this month, Titan placed an order for steel from Turkey, only to see President Trump tweet the next day that he had authorized doubling tariffs on aluminum and steel "with respect to Turkey."

Fortunately, the order hadn't been accepted yet, so Titan could cancel it.

"That could have been bad," Bush said.

For the port, growth in the regional economy has kept overall demand healthy, said Wade Elliott, the port's vice president for marketing and business development.

"Yes, we've been impacted, but fortunately it hasn't been as significant as we had initially feared," he said. "The good news is the market remains strong in Florida, both for the construction industry and manufacturing. Even though prices have increased as a result of the tariffs, people are still buying steel."

One ship was unloading 17,000 tons of steel coils "as we speak," he said, another was about to deliver a shipment of rebar, and more coils were en route.

For the port more generally, steel remains a small piece of a larger, more diversified operation. Operating revenues from usage fees and rents are up 7.1 percent so far this year, while expenses are down 2 percent.

So far this year, steel accounted for less than a quarter of the port's 1 million tons of general cargo, which mainly consisted of containerized cargo and scrap metal. General cargo has seen a small increase this year, as have liquid and dry bulk cargo (about 14 million tons of everything from cement to sulphur to petroleum to citrus juice).

Another corner of the picture is cruise ship sailings and passengers, which are down 5 and 6 percent, respectively, during the first nine months of the fiscal year.

"We knew this was happening," Elliott said. "Some of the seasonal services this past fiscal year started a little bit later than they had in previous years."

By the end of its fiscal year on Sept. 30, however, the port expects to have seen a record number of cruise ship passengers, breaking the old record of 974,259 set in 2012.

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Contact >Richard Danielson