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The State of Steel

Indiana University Northwest, Gary

The steel industry continues to be of major interest to Indiana, given its long history as one of the primary sources of employment and income in the state. But steel has long been a declining source of employment and income, both for northwest Indiana and for the nation. Nonetheless, given its continued real importance as an employer and its symbolic importance as the source of much of northwest Indiana's growth, understanding the current state of the steel industry has value.

As recently as 1969, employment in the steel mills accounted for nearly 30 percent of total local employment in northwest Indiana, but only 0.8 percent in the U.S. as a whole. By December 2002, those percentages had declined to 8 percent in northwest Indiana and less than 0.2 percent in the nation. Although this is not a totally legitimate comparison (value added in steel relative to Gross Domestic Product would be more appropriate, but such data are not readily available), the total value of steel output in 1969 was $70.9 billion, compared with a GDP of $3,492 billion (2.1 percent), while in 1998 steel output was valued at $37.6 billion, compared with a GDP of $8,508, or 0.4 percent (all values are in 1996 dollars).

Changes in the health of the steel industry nationally can be expected to drive changes locally, and understanding the national setting has clear importance. Looking initially at the extent of competition in the U.S. steel industry, we will note the transition from an oligopoly to a competitive global industry. We will examine capacity, output, and output utilization trends. We will see how prices have changed over time relative to prices in general. We will consider how changes in price, national income, and the prices of competing products have affected the demand for U.S.-produced steel. We will consider how the steel industry has been restructuring, and we will close with a look at the future of the steel industry. Our primary concern is to describe these changes in detail, rather than undertake a search for their causes.

The Extent of Competition

Competition within an industry has important consequences. The greater the extent of competition, the greater the pressures on firms to operate efficiently, the less control firms have over price, and the lower the average rate of profit is likely to be. We generally have two measures used to indicate the extent to which an industry is competitive: concentration ratios, which measure the share of the market that belongs to the largest firms, and the Herfindahl-Hirschmann Index (see inset).

Measures of Competition
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In 1970, the steel industry was difficult to classify, but it was not highly competitive (see Table 1). The four largest firms—U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel, and National Steel—probably had some degree of market power and some ability to use price as a competitive weapon. By 1997, competition in the steel industry had increased substantially, even without accounting for import competition. The steel industry in the U.S. is now substantially competitive, with no firms having any significant control over price.

Table 1
Concentration of the Steel Industry

Table 1

Capacity, Utilization, and Output Trends

Following World War II, the U.S. steel industry dominated the world. Imports into U.S. steel markets were essentially nonexistent, following the destruction of much of the steel-making capacity in Germany and Japan. A significant proportion of U.S.-produced steel was exported. Between 1950 and the end of the twentieth century, domestic steel output grew by about 48 percent. Imports, however, grew by 37,000 percent. Between 1970 and 2000, they grew by 196 percent. Domestic production grew by less than 10 percent during those three decades. U.S. dominance in steel ended by 1970 and domestic purchasers of steel have become increasingly reliant on imported steel (see Table 2).

Table 2
U.S. Steel Production, Exports, and Imports
in Thousands of Short Tons

Table 2

Not surprisingly, production capacity in the U.S. also increased in the post–World War II period, as shown in Figure 1. Based on a U.S. Department of Commerce capacity series on the U.S. iron and steel manufacturing industry, the industry's capacity in 1948 was about 107 percent of its pre–World War II (1939) capacity. Production capacity grew irregularly, but steadily, until 1977, by which time capacity had increased nearly 60 percent over its 1948 level. Note that capacity grew slightly faster than output (0.7 percent per year for capacity compared with 0.6 percent per year for output). Since 1977, capacity has declined to about the same level as in 1959, which is roughly 30 percent above its 1948 level.

Figure 1
U.S. Iron and Steel Manufacturing Capacity, 1948-2002

Figure 1

Increased Capacity

What drove this increased capacity? Both the domestic and world markets for steel expanded in the post–World War II period, so much of the explanation can be found in demand. The economic theory of investment suggests that firms will expand their capacity more rapidly when desired capacity is above actual capacity. One measures this by examining the relationship between capacity utilization and capital investment, measured here as the percentage increase in capacity. As capacity utilization increases, firms are likely to conclude that the optimal amount of capital is also increasing, and respond by increasing their investment in new plants and equipment. If capacity utilization falls, pressures on firms to invest in new capacity will diminish. If capacity utilization falls enough, firms will deliberately allow their capacity to shrink by retiring older facilities and not replacing them.

How well does this theory work in the case of the steel industry? Empirically, we would expect completed investments to respond to changes in capacity utilization with a lag, allowing time for construction, for example. Figure 1 also shows predicted capacity, in which we predict the percentage change in capacity using last year's capacity utilization, and capacity utilization two years ago, including a time trend.(1) Predicted capacity tracks actual capacity reasonably well, indicating that firms responded reasonably quickly to demand pressures in making investments or disinvestments. It appears that capacity utilization below 70 percent leads fairly quickly to shrinking capacity and that capacity utilization above 80 percent leads, also quickly, to investments designed to increase capacity.

Determining Capacity Utilization

What determines capacity utilization? Other things equal, increasing output (particularly in steel-consuming industries) will lead to increased purchases of steel and thus to increasing capacity utilization. Figure 2 charts actual and predicted capacity utilization. It is worth noting how volatile capacity utilization was in the 1950s, with sharp declines in 1949, 1952, and 1959, as a consequence of strikes. Since 1960, the important declines in capacity utilization have been associated with recessions (1971, 1975, 1991, and 2001) and with the protracted crisis in the steel industry in the early 1980s (which was also associated with the double-dip recessions of 1979 and 1981–1983).

Figure 2
Capacity Utilization in U.S. Iron and Steel Manufacturing, 1948-2002

Figure 2

Predicting capacity utilization is relatively straight-forward. We used measures of total and industrial output (for the 1959–2001 period) and a time trend to generate the predicted capacity utilization (2) shown in Figure 2. Again, the prediction tracks actual capacity utilization fairly closely, while tending to be somewhat less volatile.

Domestic output (see Figure 3) has increased since the end of World War II, albeit not smoothly. Recessions and strikes have cut into production with some regularity, with large declines in output occurring in 1949, 1959, 1971, 1974–75, and 1979–82 (when steel output fell by about half over a three year period). Between 1982 and 2000, output recovered by about 50 percent (but from a lower base), leaving industry output in 2000 about 25 percent to 30 percent below its late-1970s peak.

Figure 3
Index of U.S. Iron and Steel Output, 1948-2002

Figure 3

The Average Price of Steel

Figure 4 shows how an index of steel prices changed relative to an index of all producer-goods prices.(3) A decline in this index indicates that steel mill product prices were falling relative to all producer goods prices, meaning they either fell more rapidly or rose more slowly than other goods. In the 1940s, steel mill product prices rose substantially less rapidly than did the prices of all producer goods. During the 1950s, steel mill product prices rose more rapidly. The 1960s were a period during which steel mill product prices and all producer goods prices rose at about the same rate. Except for the recession of 1974–75, the 1970s were again a period during which steel mill product prices rose more rapidly. Between March 1947 and January 1979, prices of all producer goods roughly tripled, on average. Prices of steel mill products rose by a factor of 6, about twice as fast. (Prices of "All Metals" rose by a factor of about 4.5, so steel products rose substantially faster than did the prices of other metals, including aluminum.)

Figure 4
Price of Steel Mill Products Relative to All Producer Goods, 1939-2002

Figure 4

To the extent that other metals, or other products like glass or plastics, could be substituted for steel, this long period of rising relative steel prices probably created a more difficult competitive environment for steel producers. While rising prices relative to competing products may have a short-term benefit for producers, the long-term consequence is increased substitution of competing products by buyers.

Since 1980, steel prices have risen more slowly than have other producer goods prices and were, by 2001, about back to their (relative) 1939 level. There were price "upticks" in the 1990s, corresponding to periods of import restrictions.

Prices for Specific Steel Products

Prices of individual steel products have tended to move together (see Figure 5). The movement of domestic and import prices (see Figure 6) is important in understanding the changing competitive position of domestic producers because steel purchasers will tend to shift their purchases toward imports when domestic prices rise relative to import prices and vice versa.

Figure 5
Prices of Various Types of Carbon Steel,
Deflated by the PPI for All Commodities

Figure 5

In the absence of non-competitive markets or some specific factors, such as persistent quality differences or differences in ability to meet delivery timelines, we would expect domestic and import prices to converge. In fact, domestic and import prices have tended to move more in concert and be closer together in the 1990s than earlier. In light of the increasingly competitive nature of the U.S. market for steel, this is hardly surprising.

Figure 6
Price Per Ton for Specific Domestic and Imported Steel Products, 1956-1991

Figure 6

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All import prices show substantial volatility in the mid to late 1970s. This was associated with the imposition of temporary import tariffs in 1974 and 1978. The most interesting aspect of these two import price spikes is that domestic producers did not raise their prices in concert. A second interesting factor is the inverse price spike once the tariffs expired in 1975, with domestic producers not responding very much to that either.

More recent price data show significant price increases across most types of steel beginning in March 2002, with the reimposition of tariffs. Prices averaged across nine categories of carbon steel increased by 26 percent between February 2002 and February 2003; prices of two grades of stainless steel increased by 27 percent in the same period, according to MEPS International. This is remarkable given the declines in steel prices that occurred in previous years and the overall weakness of the world economy.

Bankruptcy and Restructuring

Worldwide overcapacity and generally weak prices for steel have led a number of firms, both in the U.S. and in other countries, to face bankruptcy. One consequence of this in the U.S. has been a continued reduction in production capacity, with nearly 20 million tons of production capacity taken offline in 2001, according to a recent article in Steel Technology. In addition, a number of acquisitions have occurred in the past two years, as shown in Table 3.

Table 3
Consolidation in the Steel Industry

Table 3

These acquisitions have moved 38.3 million tons of capacity (nearly 31 percent of the existing U.S. capacity) from independent operation into larger combinations. ISG, which is a new steel producing corporation, has acquired (or plans to acquire) the assets and capacity of three bankrupt steel companies, totaling 20.1 million tons of annual production. This would make it the second largest steel producer in the U.S. (behind U.S. Steel, assuming U.S. Steel completes its acquisition of National).

Benefits of Consolidation

One of the primary justifications for such combinations, at least in the press, has been to take advantage of economies of scale. This is, however, a mistaken justification. Economies of scale occur in production when smaller production facilities are replaced by larger facilities. Economies of scale are not thought to occur when a company acquires additional, separate production facilities. While these consolidations may achieve managerial or financial savings, they are unlikely to produce any economies of scale in production.

Nonetheless, such acquisitions may lead to cost savings for quite different reasons:

  1. First, the combined firms may experience managerial efficiencies from reduced corporate staffing needs.
  2. Second, the effective capital costs may be significantly lower for acquiring firms. In the case of ISG, for example, their acquisition of the assets of bankrupt firms has been at prices representing a small fraction of the book value of these assets. According to a study by Peter Morici, this may mean a cost advantage of as much as $100 per ton compared with newly-constructed integrated facilities.(4)
  3. Third, the acquiring firm may be able to renegotiate labor agreements to give it more flexibility in staffing. In the case of ISG's acquisition of LTV, for example, production rapidly returned to its former level with substantially fewer employees.
  4. Fourth, the acquiring firm may make wage or benefit concessions a condition of the acquisition. Again, ISG's acquisition of LTV and the conditions of its offer to acquire Bethlehem are informative. ISG has been able to shed much of LTV's existing pension obligations and retiree medical costs. Morici estimates the labor cost savings as approaching $100 per ton as well.

Such cost savings for acquiring firms will place additional pressure on workers at other firms, whether unionized or not, to accept changes in compensation levels and workplace practices in order to allow other firms to produce with a competitive cost structure.

The Future of the U.S. Steel Industry

Both the U.S. economy and the world economy are likely to grow slowly over the next year or more. This means slow growth in demand for steel, lower than normal rates of capacity utilization, and, in all likelihood, continued reductions in capacity and more consolidations.

However, capacity reductions and consolidations by themselves are more in the nature of bandages, not long-term solutions. The steel industry needs to find the resources to invest in new facilities (retiring even more of its older capacity) and in new technologies. Fruehan estimated that the flat-rolled segment of the industry "must invest at least $7 to $9 billion… within three years at the outside… to remain competitive." (5) For the industry as a whole, the amount of investment required would be much greater.

The issue is how to attract a sufficient amount of capital to an industry plagued by low rates of profit, bankruptcy, high costs, global overcapacity (at least according to some), and a slowly growing product market. All these factors reduce the willingness of capital markets to commit resources to the steel industry. Even the presence of import restrictions, which are likely to boost prices (and profits) for U.S. steel firms, are temporary. In addition, these profits cannot be considered a long-term incentive to redirect capital from other more profitable industries. As a result, unless results from new investments can be seen quickly, the end of import restrictions will lead fairly quickly to lowered prices and profitability once again. The issue is how to provide permanent increases in returns to investments in the steel industry, and the answer is far from clear.

Even less clear is the possibility of the steel industry earning significantly larger than normal profits for the foreseeable future. As the industry has become increasingly competitive, prices and profits have inevitably declined. Even elimination of excess capacity in the industry seems unlikely to do more than eliminate losses and return the ability to earn a normal return on its assets. It is for this reason that the outcome of industry consolidation takes on significance.

Should the steel industry consolidate enough to re-create an oligopoly, it is more likely that firms in the industry could earn sustained levels of profit above a normal return on assets. However, the steel industry globally remains highly competitive, and will undoubtedly remain highly competitive even with the ongoing consolidation of U.S. firms. This continued global competitiveness does not provide much hope for the U.S. industry earning high rates of return.

What does the future hold? It seems obvious that steel employment will continue to fall, while steel output will, at best, rise slowly. Steel's importance in the U.S. economy will continue to decline. The marginally profitable nature of the steel industry, which is likely to continue in the absence of permanent import restrictions, will make financing new investments difficult. Steel, once an engine of growth for the U.S. economy, has little hope of once again taking center stage.


  1. We regressed the percent change in capacity (%ChCap) on a time trend (YEAR) and on two lags of capacity utilization (LAGUTIL1 and LAGUTIL2) for the period 1950–2002, with the following results (t-statistics in parentheses):

  2. We regressed capacity utilization (CapUtil) on a time trend (YEAR) and on real Gross Domestic Product (RGDP), real Disposable Personal Income (RDPI), an index of industrial production (IPROD), an index of manufacturing production (MPROD) and an index of automobile production (AUTOPROD) (t-statistics in parentheses):

  3. We obtained the monthly Producer Price Index for all commodities and the Producer Price Index for Steel Mill Products, for the entire run of both series. The index here is calculated as:
    Relative Price Index = [(PPISteel)/(PPIAll)]*100.
  4. Information on consolidations is from Peter Morici, "An Assessment of Steel Import Relief Under Section 201 After One Year," March 2003, p. 16.
  5. Robert J. Fruehan, Investments Required by the Flat-Rolled Steel Industry to Remain Competitive, Public Exhibit 2 to Public Prehearing Brief of Bethlehem Steel, LTV Steel, National Steel, and U.S. Steel, September 10, 2001, International Trade Commission, as quoted in USWA Proposals on Adjustment Actions, November 5, 2001, p. 6.