Leading some to question whether U.S. steel may be on the comeback trail.

By Peter Buxbaum, AJOTThe same set of statistics can tell several stories, and the same is true of numbers associated with American steel production and exports.
Total steel exports have increased in recent months on a year-over-year basis. But these figures are being compared to the god-awful 2009. On the other hand, some export economies are showing signs of improvement, creating an increased demand for steel for infrastructure projects and providing opportunities for U.S. exporters.
But the bottom line is that the U.S. is running a steep trade deficit in steel and in particular with the world’s number one steel producer, China. While demand for steel in China remains strong, any production in excess of Chinese domestic requirements ends up in world markets at prices, say detractors, that are subsidized by the Chinese government and with which U.S. producers cannot compete. What is required, say China’s detractors, is for the U.S. government to press China harder to end practices which distort global steel market forces.
Exports of U.S. steel for April and May 2010, the most recent months for which data are available, declined slightly from previous months but showed dramatic increases over volumes for 2009, according to numbers reported by the American Institute for International Steel, an interest group that advocates for liberal trade policies. Exports declined in May compared to April by 6.3 percent but were 68.1 percent higher compared to May 2009. Steel exports were 60.2 percent higher for the first five months of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009.
In April 2010, exports declined by 2.1 percent over March, but were 58.3 percent higher in the first four months of 2010 compared to 2009. The April 2010 exports, at 1.1 million tons, were 82.4 higher than volumes in April 2009.
Total shipments made by U.S. steel mills have been on an upward trajectory for the last few months, indicating growing demand for steel, both domestically and internationally. In May 2010, U.S. steel mills shipped 7.3 million tons, a 4.1 percent increase over the volumes shipped in April, according to figures provided by the American Iron and Steel Institute, and a 71.6 percent increase from the 4.3 million tons shipped in May 2009. April’s figures showed a 7.7 percent decrease over March and a 74.6 percent increase over April 2009. AISI is an advocacy group representing domestic producers.
But the U.S. steel industry in 2010 is operating from a miserable 2009 baseline. Although the figures for 2010 are encouraging, they are improving over 2009 figures which represented one of the low points for the industry. Overall steel exports in 2009 declined over 40 percent compared to 2008. The performance of one of the mainstays of the industry, U.S. Steel, was even worse. In 2009, the company exported a total of 322,000 tons of steel from the U.S. as compared to 926,000 tons in 2008, a decline of almost two-thirds.
Still, the recent export data shows that demand for steel is increasing in some parts of the world, providing hope for U.S. exporters. The Steel Manufacturers Association projects that U.S. exports of steel will reach 11.3 million tons this year, 32.9 percent higher than 2009’s 8.5 million tons.
“Some developing countries, such as in Africa, the Dominican Republic, India, Brazil, and Russia are beginning to show signs of life,” said David Phelps, president of the AIIS. “Exports declined in both NAFTA and non-NAFTA Western Hemispheric markets in May, while increasing slightly to Asia and the European Union.”
Exports in April declined to U.S. NAFTA neighbors but increased by over 87 percent to the non-NAFTA Western Hemisphere region. “U.S. steel exports continued to show strength in 2010 in comparison to the internationally weak markets of 2009,” said Phelps. “The year to date data show continued growth in exports in 2010 compared to 2009, with strong increases in all regions except Afr