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Minerals and Metals

Minerals and Metals

Changes in 2020 from 2019:

  • U.S. total exports of minerals and metals: Decreased by $9.4 billion (6.8 percent) to $128.3 billion
    • U.S. domestic exports of minerals and metals: Decreased by $5.9 billion (5.5 percent) to $101.0 billion
    • U.S. re-exports of minerals and metals: Decreased by $3.6 billion (11.5 percent) to $27.3 billion
  • U.S. general imports of minerals and metals: Increased by $6.0 billion (3.0 percent) to $203.8 billion

The value of U.S. domestic exports of minerals and metals[1] dropped by $5.9 billion (5.5 percent) to $101.0 billion from 2019 to 2020.[2] The decline was largely driven by reduced downstream demand from manufacturing sectors in foreign markets associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The largest decrease in exports was to Mexico, where exports declined by $3.4 billion (17.9 percent) to $15.6 billion. Minerals and metals exports to India also fell sharply, declining $1.1 billion (30.2 percent) to $2.5 billion. Collectively, the two countries represent 76.4 percent of the overall $5.9 billion decline in exports. While exports to most destinations were down, exports to Switzerland increased by $2.6 billion (80.6 percent) to $5.8 billion. The top three declines in minerals and metals exports occurred among steel mill products, certain base metals and chemical elements, and miscellaneous products of base metal. Although most digests within the minerals and metals sector experienced declining exports, exports of precious metals[3] and non-numismatic coins[4] rose by $6.5 billion (25.6 percent).

The value of U.S. general imports of minerals and metals increased by $6.0 billion (3.0 percent) from 2019 to 2020. The rise in imports was mainly driven by a large increase in imports from Switzerland, which rose by $14.9 billion (637.2 percent) to $17.3 billion. While imports also rose in value from South Africa (45.3 percent), Australia (124.2 percent), and the United Kingdom (34.0 percent), imports from most major trading partners fell. The value of imports of precious metals and non-numismatic coins rose by $34.3 billion (148.1 percent) to $57.5 billion in 2020. Unlike other digests in the minerals and metals sector that experienced reduced demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, precious metals, especially gold, saw increased demand as a safe-haven asset during the economic uncertainty caused by the onset of the pandemic.[5] Absent the increase in imports of precious metals and non-numismatic coins, overall minerals and metals imports would have fallen by $28.4 billion.

U.S. Domestic Exports

U.S. exports of steel mill products fell by $1.8 billion (18.1 percent) to $8.1 billion in 2020. The sub-digests with the largest absolute declines were plates, sheets, and strips of carbon and alloy steels; pipes and tubes of carbon and alloy steel; as well as plates, sheets, and strips of stainless steel. Collectively, the fall in exports of these sub-digests accounted for 79.8 percent of the overall export decline in the steel mill products digest. Declining demand in major export markets from downstream sectors like auto manufacturing and the oil and gas industry was the primary reason for these declines. Flat steel products—which include the plate, sheet, and strip sub-digests—are heavily used by auto manufacturers. Global auto production fell approximately 16 percent in 2020, largely due to initial decreased demand and supply chain disruptions through much of the year associated with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.[6] The fall in steel tube and pipe exports was largely driven by reduced demand from the oil and gas industry, also largely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Canada, the largest destination for U.S. steel pipe and tube exports, the average number of active oil and gas rigs fell by 33.3 percent in 2020.[7]

In 2020, U.S. exports of certain base metals and chemical elements declined by $1.3 billion (25.7 percent) to $3.8 billion. Within this digest, the largest drop was in titanium and articles thereof, including waste and scrap, which declined $581 million (30.8 percent) to $1.3 billion.[8] Domestic exports of nickel bars, rods, profiles, and wire declined $280 million (30.2 percent) to $645 million.[9] Nickel is primarily used worldwide to produce stainless steel. Closures in the hospitality industry related to the COVID-19 pandemic sharply reduced demand for cutlery, a major end-use of stainless steel.[10] China remained the largest destination market with $447 million in U.S. domestic exports, a decline of $20 million (4.2 percent) from 2019. The largest drop for a single country in the value of exports of base metals and chemical elements was to France with a decline of $308 million (47.0 percent) to $348 million.

In 2020, U.S. exports of miscellaneous products of base metal[11] declined by $1.3 billion (13.6 percent) to $8.1 billion. No specific product category accounted for the majority of the shift in the base-metal products digest as the decreases were spread throughout.[12] These export declines were consistent with reduced domestic shipments of products in this group as indicated by reported declines in the value of U.S. manufacturers’ shipments of primary metals and fabricated metal products by 6.8 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively, in 2020.[13] Decreased exports of miscellaneous base metal products to Canada and Mexico accounted for 52.5 percent of the overall decline in exports. Many of the products in this group are inputs that are used in the production of downstream products, such as automobiles, in those export destinations. As previously noted, global auto manufacturing declined by 16 percent in 2020 due to production curtailments brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.[14]

The value of exports of aluminum mill products (e.g., sheet, plate, extrusions, and castings) decreased by $1.1 billion (21.6 percent) in 2020 to $3.8 billion. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the global auto manufacturing, aerospace, and construction industries experiencing curtailments and idling in production, thereby decreasing their demand for aluminum and causing prices to drop.[15] For the domestic aluminum industry, demand from foreign auto manufacturers accounts for a large portion of U.S. aluminum mill exports, in the form of aluminum auto-body sheet.[16] Auto production in Mexico fell 20.8 percent in 2020 while Canadian auto production fell by 28.2 percent.[17] U.S. exports of aluminum plates, sheets, and strip fell by $760 million (25.6 percent) in 2020.[18]

The value of exports of copper and related articles decreased by $1.1 billion in 2020 (16.4 percent) to $5.4 billion. Exports of refined copper products accounted for the greatest share of the total decrease of U.S. copper exports in 2020. In particular, exports of refined copper cathodes and sections of cathodes decreased by $283 million (a decrease of 72.4 percent)[19] and exports of “other” refined copper decreased by $251 million (a decrease of 62.2 percent).[20] Refined copper prices on the COMEX exchange increased to $2.80 per pound in 2020 compared with $2.72 per pound in 2019,[21] so the decrease in the value of exports was due to declines in the volume of refined copper exports. The decrease in U.S. refined copper exports coincided with a decrease in refined copper production in the United States in 2020. Total U.S. refined copper production decreased to 898,800 metric tons in 2020 from 1,029,100 metric tons in 2019 (a decrease of 12.7 percent),[22] mainly because of decreased production at Rio Tinto Kennecott’s Bingham Canyon Mine (“Kennecott”) in Utah. Refined copper production at Kennecott decreased to 84,800 metric tons from 184,600 metric tons in 2019 (a decrease of 54 percent) because Kennecott’s smelter was shut down for maintenance following an earthquake in March 2020. The smelter restarted production in October 2020.[23] The decline in U.S. exports was also impacted by an estimated 9.1 percent decline in global copper consumption outside of China in 2020.[24]

U.S. exports of precious metals[25] and non-numismatic coins[26] increased by $6.5 billion (25.6 percent) to $31.7 billion in 2020. Higher gold prices,[27] driven by “safe-haven” investment demand against the potential economic uncertainties following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in first-quarter 2020,[28] helped drive the rise in the value of U.S. exports of gold waste and scrap by $1.2 billion (92.3 percent) to $2.5 billion, despite 24.7 fewer metric tons (25.3 percent) exported than in the previous year. Canada was the primary destination market ($2.4 billion) in 2020 and recorded the leading increase (up by $1.2 billion or 91.5 percent) for U.S. exports of gold waste and scrap.[29]

Similarly, higher palladium prices[30] increased the value of U.S. exports of palladium in unwrought and powder forms by $1.0 billion (70.2 percent) to $2.5 billion. The increased value occurred despite 8.0 fewer metric tons (16.4 percent) being exported than in the previous year, as the pandemic disrupted the operations of industries that consume platinum-group metals (PGMs). The largest export increases in 2020 were recorded to the United Kingdom ($473 million or 117.3 percent), Italy ($217 million or 128.3 percent), and Switzerland ($195 million or 46.4 percent), which are major global centers for fabricating and trading PGMs.[31]

U.S. General Imports

U.S. imports of precious metals and non-numismatic coins increased significantly by $34.3 billion (148.1 percent) to $57.5 billion in 2020. Just over one-half (50.4 percent) of this overall increase was recorded by U.S. imports of high-purity (not less than 99.5 percent by weight) refined gold bullion, which increased by $17.3 billion (445.7 percent) to $21.2 billion.[32] Higher gold prices augmented the values of the additional 304 metric tons (366.2 percent) imported in 2020 to meet rising investment demand, particularly as in-flows into exchange-traded financial assets reached record levels.[33] The largest import increase was recorded from Switzerland—up by $9.1 billion (911.2 percent) to $10.1 billion—which is a major global center for trading gold and other precious metals. Significant import increases were also recorded from gold-trading centers Singapore (up by $2.5 billion) and Hong Kong (up by $1.5 billion) and mine-producers Australia (up by $2.0 billion) and Canada (up by $939 million).[34]

Imports also increased, albeit to a much lesser extent, for cooking and kitchen ware, fabricated structural steel,[35] metallic containers, and metal construction components. Imports of cookware and kitchen ware increased as retail sales of cookware and other housewares soared in 2020, as consumers prepared and consumed more meals and snacks at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[36] The increase in imports of metallic containers from 2019 to 2020 was driven by a $371 million dollar (201.6 percent) increase in imports of aluminum cans with a capacity not exceeding 355 milliliters (12 ounces).[37] The increase in aluminum can imports coincided with an increase in demand for aluminum cans as a more environmentally responsible packaging option and as beer sales shifted to home consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic.[38] Increases in fabricated structural and metal construction components were driven by higher construction spending in 2020. Construction spending increased during 2020 for communication, electric power, and water supply projects, sectors that include towers and lattice masts.

U.S. imports of natural and synthetic gemstones[39] decreased by $8.4 billion (38.3 percent) to $13.6 billion in 2020. Nearly all (90.6 percent) of this decline was recorded by U.S. imports of loose (not mounted or set), cut or polished (worked), gem-quality (nonindustrial) diamonds, which decreased by $7.6 billion (39.3 percent) to $11.8 billion.[40] Lower diamond prices combined with decreased import quantities, as the lockdowns disrupted manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers during March–May 2020 and economic uncertainty suppressed consumer demand for precious jewelry that only rebounded in the latter half of the year.[41] Sources leading this decline were Israel, down by $3.4 billion (50.2 percent) to $3.4 billion, and India, down $1.8 billion (21.6 percent) to $6.7 billion, both which are well-established global centers for processing and trading diamonds.[42]

U.S. imports of steel mill products decreased by $7.3 billion (30.3 percent) to $16.7 billion. The reasons for the decline in imports of steel mill products largely track those outlined in the discussion of U.S. exports. In particular, downstream U.S. demand in the auto manufacturing[43] and oil and gas industries dropped sharply due to the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. auto production fell by 2.1 million units (18.9 percent) in 2020[44] while the average number of active oil and gas rigs in the United States fell by 54.1 percent in 2020 relative to a year earlier.[45] As a result, U.S. steel consumption fell by 18.3 million metric tons (18.3 percent) from the previous year’s level, impacting both domestic steel production and imports.[46]

Imports of unwrought aluminum as well as aluminum mill products both fell in 2020. Unwrought aluminum imports decreased by $2.1 billion (21.6 percent) to $7.6 billion. Aluminum mill products fell $1.7 billion (24.8 percent) to $5.3 billion. The decline in unwrought aluminum imports reflects the previously mentioned decline in domestic aluminum mill production, driven by the decline in U.S. auto production associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. general imports of certain base metals and chemical elements decreased by $1.4 billion (22.0 percent) to $4.8 billion in 2020. Close to two-fifths (40.9 percent) of this decrease were from four metal products used in various downstream U.S. manufacturing processes, including the aerospace and automotive industries, which had significant COVID-19 related downturns in 2020. Unwrought cobalt other than alloys declined in import value by $151 million (37.5 percent) to $252 million.[47] Waste and scrap nickel decreased by $147 million (45.0 percent) to $180 million[48] while unwrought titanium and titanium powders decreased $136 million (36.4 percent) to $238 million.[49] Unwrought tin other than alloys decreased $123 million (18.7 percent) to $536 million.[50] Canada is the largest source by value of certain base metals and chemical elements at $1.0 billion in 2020, down slightly ($75 million or 6.8 percent) from $1.1 billion in 2019. The next two largest sources of U.S. general imports were China and Russia, where imports were down by $155 million (29.3 percent) and $216 million (37.4 percent), respectively.

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[1] The Minerals and Metals sector consists of 45 product digests. Each USITC sector digest encompasses various 8-digit subheadings in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTS). For a complete list of HTS subheadings classified in a particular sector or digest, see this data table.

[2] Except where otherwise noted, the export data used in this section are for domestic exports. For more information on trade terminology, please refer to USITC, “Special Topic: Trade Metrics,” Shifts in U.S. Merchandise Trade, 2014, June 2015.

[3] “Precious metals” include gold, silver, and platinum-group metals in unrefined or refined unwrought, semi-manufactured, or waste and scrap forms.

[4] “Non-numismatic coins” are valued for the precious-metal content rather than as historical or collectors’ items.

[5] WGC, “Gold Demand Trends Full Year and Q4 2020,” January 31, 2021, 1, 7–8.

[6] IndustryWeek, “Global Auto Production Dropped,” March 26, 2021.

[7] Baker Hughes, “North America Rig Count,” accessed May 26, 2021.

[8] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheadings 8108.20.00, 8108.30.00, 8108.90.30, and 8108.90.60, accessed July 28, 2021.

[9] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheadings 7505.11.10, 7505.11.30, 7505.11.50, 7505.12.10, 7505.12.30, 7505.12.50, 7505.21.10, 7505.21.50, 7505.22.10, and 7505.22.50, accessed July 28, 2021.

[10] Home, “Knives out for Nickel Market as Restaurants Close,” June 12, 2020.

[11] The group of miscellaneous products of base metal (MM031) is composed of products classified under HS chapters 73, 74, 76, 83, and 96.

[12] For example, the leading declines in U.S. exports of miscellaneous products of base metal in 2020 were $246 million (19.5 percent share) for articles of iron or steel, not elsewhere specified or identified (n.e.s.o.i.) (HTS subheading 7326.90.86); $210 million (16.7 percent) for mountings, fittings, and similar articles of Iron or steel, aluminum, or zinc (HTS subheading 8302.30.30); and $133 million (10.6 percent) for articles of aluminum, n.e.s.o.i. (HTS 7616.99.51).

[13] USDOC, Census, “Full Report on Manufacturers’ Shipments,” February 4, 2021, 6, table 1, “Value of Manufacturers’ Shipments for Industry Groups.”

[14] IndustryWeek, “Global Auto Production Dropped,” March 26, 2021.

[15] For a more detailed explanation of shifts in the automotive and aerospace industries, see the Transportation Equipment section of this report.

[16] GlobeNewswire, “Aluminum Industry Affected by Lower Demand,” May 12, 2020.

[17] OICA, “World Motor Vehicle Production by Country and Type,” accessed July 6, 2021.

[18] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheadings 7606.11.30, 7606.11.60, 7606.12.30, 7606.12.60, 7606.91.30, 7606.91.60, 7606.92.30, and 7606.92.60, accessed July 28, 2021.

[19] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 7403.11.00, accessed July 28, 2021.

[20] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 7403.19.00, accessed July 28, 2021.

[21] Encore Wire, “SEC Form 10-K: 2020 Annual Report,” December 31, 2021, 14.

[22] ICSG, “Copper Bulletin,” May 2021, 17.

[23] Rio Tinto, Annual Report 2020, February 22, 2021, 52, 339.

[24] ICSG, “Copper Bulletin,” May 2021, 19.

[25] “Precious metals” include gold, silver, and platinum-group metals in unrefined or refined unwrought, semi-manufactured, or waste and scrap forms.

[26] “Non-numismatic coins” are valued for the precious-metal content rather than as historical or collectors’ items.

[27] The 2020 average annual (afternoon-fix) price for gold on the London Bullion Market rose by $377.41 per troy ounce (27.1 percent) over the previous year’s average to reach $1,769.59 per troy ounce. LBMA, “LBMA Precious Metal Prices” database, accessed May 24, 2021.

[28] WGC, “Gold Demand Trends Q1 2020,” April 30, 2020, 1, 7–8.

[29] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 7112.91.00, accessed July 28, 2021.

[30] The 2020 average annual Englehard Industrial Bullion (EIB) price for palladium rose by $663.20 (42.9 percent) over the previous year’s average to reach $2,208.74 per troy ounce. BASF Corp., “Metal Price History Charts,” database, accessed May 24, 2021.

[31] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 7110.21.00, accessed July 28, 2021.

[32] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS statistical reporting number 7108.12.1013, accessed July 28, 2021.

[33] WGC, “Gold Demand Trends Full Year and Q4 2020,” January 31, 2021, 1, 7–8.

[34] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS statistical reporting number 7108.12.1013, accessed July 28, 2021.

[35] “Fabricated structural steel” includes welded steel angles, shapes and sections; bridges and bridge sections; towers and lattice masts; props, scaffolding, shuttering or pit-propping equipment; and columns, pillars, posts, and beams and girders.

[36] U.S. cookware sales increased 20.7 percent over the first three quarters of 2020 compared to the same period last year, rebounding from an initial drop in first-quarter 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Likewise, U.S. housewares sales increased 22 percent in 2020 over the previous year. Friedrick, “Cookware Sales Up 36% in Q3,” November 18, 2020; IHA, “Housewares Industry Rises to Challenges of Pandemic Year,” January 20, 2021.

[37] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS statistical reporting number 7612.90.1030, accessed July 28, 2021.

[38] Toto, “Pandemic Accelerates Aluminum Can Demand,” August 3, 2020.

[39] “Gemstones” include pearls, diamonds, colored precious stones (e.g., ruby, sapphire, emerald, etc.), and semi-precious stones (e.g., agate, amethyst, garnet, jade, opal, peridot, topaz, tourmaline, turquoise, zircon, etc.).

[40] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 7102.39.00, accessed July 1, 2021.

[41] Benjamin, “Coronavirus Brings Diamond Sector to Standstill,” March 31, 2021; Golan, “Dive and Bounce: The Golan Diamond Market Report Q4 2020,” January 28, 2021.

[42] Cohen and Rabinovitch, “Israel's Diamond Industry Grinds to Halt,” May 15, 2020; Gaitonde, “Indian Diamond Industry in 2020,” January 11, 2021; Reid, Heiberg, and Jadhav, “From Carats to Peanuts,” August 12, 2020.

[43] IndustryWeek, “Global Auto Production Dropped,” March 26, 2021.

[44] OICA, “World Motor Vehicle Production by Country and Type,” accessed July 6, 2021.

[45] Baker Hughes, “North America Rig Count,” accessed May 26, 2021.

[46] USDOC, ITA, “Steel Executive Summary: March 2021,” March 2021.

[47] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 8105.20.60, accessed July 28, 2021.

[48] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 7503.00.00, accessed July 28, 2021.

[49] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 8108.20.00, accessed July 28, 2021.

[50] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 8001.10.00, accessed July 28, 2021.

Bibliography — Minerals and Metals

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Golan, Edahn. “Dive and Bounce: The Golan Diamond Market Report Q4 2020.” EG Diamond Research and Data, January 28, 2021. https://www.edahngolan.com/dive-and-bounce-the-golan-diamond-market-report-q4-2020/.

Home, Andy. “Knives Out for Nickel Market as Restaurants Close.” Reuters, June 12, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-metals-nickel-ahome/column-knives-out-for-nickel-market-as-restaurants-close-idUKKBN23J237.

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