Minerals and Metals

Author: Karl Tsuji
International Trade Analyst

Change in 2014 from 2013:

  To view changing data, mouseover the graphic below.
  • U.S. total exports: Decreased by $8.5 billion (5 percent) to $153.1 billion
  • U.S. general imports: Increased by $14.6 billion (8 percent) to $205.1 billion

U.S. trade in minerals and metals over the past five years continued to be concentrated among the same top-three sector trading partners: Canada, China, and Mexico (table MM.1). In 2014, these three countries together accounted for about two-fifths of both U.S. domestic exports (38 percent) and U.S. general imports (41 percent). Several factors contributed to the leading shifts in U.S. imports and exports of minerals and metals during 2013‒14, including the economic performance of major downstream consuming industries (table MM.2), particularly higher shipment values recorded by most individual durable-goods manufacturing industries;1 continued expansion of construction activity;2 continued energy exploration, development, and production;3 lack of sufficient domestic mine resources for many critical raw materials; and higher prices for most minerals and metals, with certain precious metals noted among the exceptions.4

Table MM.1: Minerals and metals: U.S. exports and general imports, by selected trading partners, 2010–14
 
Million $
 
           
Absolute change,
Percent change,
Item
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2013-14
2013-14
U.S. exports of domestic exports merchandise:              
Canada 25,075 28,825 28,948 27,732 27,326 -406 -1.5
China 10,823 13,517 12,193 11,998 10,477 -1,521 -12.7
Mexico 12,594 15,829 17,758 18,793 20,897 2,104 11.2
India 3,160 2,838 4,644 2,641 2,399 -242 -9.2
Germany 3,694 4,351 3,928 4,043 3,829 -214 -5.3
South Korea 3,152 4,207 3,796 3,682 3,306 -377 -10.2
Japan 3,022 3,678 3,078 3,153 3,439 286 9.1
United Kingdom 9,974 13,115 11,163 4,764 6,821 2,057 43.2
Israel 700 1,157 1,909 857 579 -278 -32.5
Switzerland 10,211 13,194 14,788 13,351 7,655 -5,696 -42.7
All other 27,701 40,189 38,799 42,714 35,364 -7,350 -17.2
Total domestic exports 110,106 140,901 141,002 133,730 122,092 -11,638 -8.7
Re-exports 18,299 24,111 23,011 27,907 31,030 3,123 11.2
Total U.S. exports (domestic exports and re-exports) 128,405 165,012 164,013 161,636 153,122 -8,515 -5.3
U.S. general imports:              
Canada 31,652 35,352 32,431 32,670 33,272 602 1.8
China 22,293 25,369 27,034 27,786 30,922 3,137 11.3
Mexico 16,329 21,935 21,997 19,277 19,416 139 0.7
India 7,713 9,150 8,673 10,343 11,066 723 7
Germany 6,358 7,884 7,921 7,743 8,176 433 5.6
South Korea 3,491 5,052 5,910 5,552 7,706 2,154 38.8
Japan 5,808 7,083 8,153 7,433 7,399 -34 -0.5
United Kingdom 2,947 3,259 3,712 3,333 3,836 502 15.1
Israel 8,245 9,747 8,818 9,385 9,951 567 6
Switzerland 1,265 1,671 1,630 1,435 2,064 629 43.8
All other 51,145 67,149 68,802 65,478 71,274 5,796 8.9
Total general imports 157,246 193,651 195,080 190,435 205,082 14,648 7.7
Source: Compiled from official statistics of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 2010–14 period. These reflect all official revisions of previously published data up to June 2014 (accessed April 21, 2015).
Note: Import values are based on Customs value; export values are based on free along ship value, U.S. port of export. Calculations based on unrounded data. The trading partners shown are those with the largest total U.S. trade (U.S. general imports plus U.S. domestic exports) in these products in the current year. Re-exports (also called foreign exports) are further defined in the “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQs) and in the “Trade Metrics” discussion.
Table MM.2: Minerals and metals: Leading changes in U.S. domestic exports and general imports, 2010–14
 
Million $
 
           
Absolute change,
Percent change,
Item
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2013-14
2013-14
U.S. domestic exports:              
Increases:              
Miscellaneous products of base metal (MM031) 7,103 8,092 8,836 9,279 9,948 669 7.2
Copper ores and concentrates (MM004) 1,181 2,226 2,396 2,573 3,238 665 25.9
Decreases:              
Precious metals and non-numismatic coins (MM020) 28,054 42,136 43,091 38,836 26,953 -11,883 -30.6
Iron and steel waste and scrap (MM023) 8,378 11,475 9,421 7,578 6,175 -1,404 -18.5
Natural and synthetic gemstones (MM019) 3,303 3,709 3,632 2,358 2,170 -189 -8
All other 62,087 73,263 73,625 73,106 73,609 504 0.7
Total 110,106 140,901 141,002 133,730 122,092 -11,638 -8.7
U.S. general imports:              
Increases:              
Plates, sheets, and strips of carbon and alloy steels (MM025B) 6,149 7,965 8,731 7,927 12,263 4,335 54.7
Ingots, blooms, billets, and slabs of carbon and alloy steels (MM025A) 2,521 4,203 4,094 3,404 5,199 1,795 52.7
Natural and synthetic gemstones (MM019) 19,744 23,599 21,601 24,924 26,448 1,524 6.1
Pipes and tubes of carbon and alloy steels (MM025L) 6,803 8,959 11,270 8,930 10,155 1,225 13.7
Decreases:              
Precious metals and non-numismatic coins (MM020) 24,259 34,329 32,164 30,209 26,818 -3,390 -11.2
Copper and related articles (MM036) 8,458 10,979 9,732 10,155 9,145 -1,010 -9.9
All other 89,311 103,618 107,487 104,886 115,054 10,168 9.7
Total 157,246 193,651 195,080 190,435 205,082 14,648 7.7
Source: Compiled from official statistics of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 2010–14 period. These reflect all official revisions of previously published data up to June 2014 (accessed March 26, 2015).
Note: Import values are based on Customs value; export values are based on free along ship value, U.S. port of export. Calculations based on unrounded data.

U.S. Exports5

U.S. domestic exports of minerals and metals fell in 2014 from the previous year’s level, by $11.6 billion (9 percent) to $122.1 billion. Precious metals and non-numismatic coins accounted for the largest export decline of $11.9 billion decrease (31 percent) to $27.0 billion. Destination markets that recorded the largest declines were Switzerland (down by $5.7 billion) and Hong Kong (down by $4.1 billion); both are global centers for refining, fabricating, and trading all precious metals.

Gold accounted for most of this export decline, as shipments of unwrought gold, in the forms of unrefined doré and refined bullion and grains, decreased by $11.2 billion (36 percent) to $20.3 billion.6 The United States produced less gold in 2014 as two major mines in Nevada extracted lower-grade ores and refineries processed less doré and recovered scrap.7 Lower monthly average gold prices in 2014 further dampened the value of exports.8 Gold prices were down by 10 percent from the previous year’s monthly average.9 This trend was attributable to lower global demand, as lower precious-jewelry and investment-item (bar and coin) purchases overshadowed higher central bank purchases. This lower demand was coupled with relatively unchanged global supply: higher mine production counterbalanced lower scrap recovery.10

U.S. exports of ferrous (iron and steel) waste and scrap were also reduced from the previous year. As the world’s largest economy, with a well-established, nationwide metallic scrap recovery infrastructure, the United States is the world’s largest generator and exporter of this commodity. However, in 2014, U.S. exports dropped by $1.4 billion (19 percent) to $6.2 billion, a reflection of lesser quantities exported and a greater proportion of less costly scrap types in the export mix.

Several domestic and foreign market factors dampened U.S. ferrous scrap exports. The unusually early and harsh winter weather in the eastern United States delayed delivery of scrap-hauling railway rolling stock; moreover, railway locomotives were diverted to haul crude-petroleum trains from oil shale fields because of a lack of pipeline capacity. Other factors included devaluation of foreign currencies against the U.S. dollar, and less robust demand for U.S. product in key ferrous scrap-consuming countries.11

The leading trade partners accounting for the declines were Turkey (down $613 million), China (down $411 million), and South Korea (down $312 million), each having large-scale steel industries that depend upon foreign sources for ferrous scrap. Overall demand from these countries did not drop: China and South Korea produced more raw steel in 2014, though Turkey produced slightly less.12 However, each shifted its foreign sourcing of steelmaking raw materials toward more non-U.S.-origin scrap and foreign-origin iron ore.13 The Chinese steel industry also benefited from increased domestically mined iron-ore output in 2014.14

In 2014, U.S. exports of natural and synthetic gemstones15 decreased by $189 million (8 percent) to $2.2 billion, led by lower exports of loose (not either set or mounted), non-industrial, worked (cut or faceted) diamonds.16 However, gemstones destined for re-export—predominantly worked (processed) diamonds—accounted for very high proportions of U.S. total exports of gemstones: their share increased from 78 percent in 2010 to 91 percent in 2014.17 Considered the world’s largest diamond-consuming market,18 but with only minimal domestic mine output,19 the United States is a significant international processing, trading, and transit center.20

Established industry sales practices for diamond distribution generate re-exports. However, it is not always clear whether or not a given transaction will generate a re-export. Diamonds also can be sold or even resold while in air transit to or from the United States.21 Hence, importers of record may not know a priori whether the diamonds will be sold to a domestic buyer or to a foreign buyer and subsequently re-exported.

Decreased domestic exports of minerals and metals were partly offset by increased exports of miscellaneous products of base metal, up by $669 million (7 percent) to $9.9 billion,22 and of copper ores and concentrates, up by $665 million (26 percent) to $3.2 billion. No specific product accounted for leading shifts in the base metal industry group. Increased exports of miscellaneous base-metal products to Mexico and other U.S. production-sharing partners can be attributable to these items being component inputs to the growing shipments reported by most U.S. durable-goods industries.

Increased domestic mine output of copper ore was shipped to both domestic and foreign facilities for further processing into refined copper.23 Mexico accounted for the largest increase in these exports (up by $630 million), since it has significant facilities for smelting, refining, and solvent extraction-electrowinning (that is, heap leaching and electrolytic recovery) of copper.24 This trend reflects the extensive commercial ties within the North American primary (mined) copper industry.

U.S. Imports

Steel mill products recorded the largest increase in imports in the minerals and metals sector, up by $9.1 billion (31 percent) to $38.2 billion.25 Russia (up by $1.5 billion), South Korea (up by $1.2 billion), and China (up by $1.1 billion) recorded the leading increases, as each has large-scale, export-oriented steel industries that expanded raw-steel output in 2014.26

Three types of carbon (nonalloy) and alloy (other than stainless) steel mill products accounted for most of the increase. Imports of plates, sheets, and strips (flat-rolled steel products) were up by $4.3 billion (55 percent) to $12.3 billion, to meet growing U.S. downstream demand in certain durable-goods manufacturing (especially motor vehicles)27 and construction28 sectors. Imports of semifinished steel (ingots, blooms, billets, and slabs) were up by $1.8 billion (53 percent) to $5.2 billion. Domestic steel mills increasingly relied on imports of these intermediate goods to supplement their own raw-steel output (up by 1 percent),29 allowing them to expand their shipments (up by 3 percent) of downstream steel mill products.30 Imports of pipes and tubes (tubular products) went up by $1.2 billion (14 percent) to $10.2 billion in order to meet downstream U.S. demand, particularly in the growing construction31 and energy32 sectors.

U.S. imports of natural and synthetic gemstones increased by $1.5 billion (6 percent) to $26.4 billion. Sources recording the leading increases were Israel (up by $459 million), a long-established center for diamond processing and trading; India (up by $262 million), a more recently established center for diamond and colored gemstone processing and trading; and South Africa (up by $249 million), a long-established mined diamond producer and center for diamond processing and trading.33 In addition, jewelry retailers generally reported robust holiday sales,34 which relied on increased imports as well as domestic sources of precious jewelry.35

The overall increase in U.S. imports of minerals and metals was partly countered by decreased imports of precious metals and non-numismatic coins, down by $3.4 billion (11 percent) to $26.8 billion. Major producers of mined gold and silver that recorded the largest declines were Peru (down $2.1 billion), Mexico (down $1.4 billion), and Canada (down $1.3 billion).36 Unwrought gold, in the forms of unrefined doré and refined bullion and grains, recorded the largest import decline, down by $1.3 billion (9 percent) to $12.8 billion.37 U.S. consumer demand for precious jewelry remained robust in 2014, but was overshadowed by a lessening of investor interest in acquiring more investment items, compared to the previous year’s high purchasing level.38 Lower gold prices, reflecting weaker global demand but relatively unchanged global supply,39 further dampened the value of imports.

U.S. imports of copper and related articles decreased by $1.0 billion (10 percent) to $9.1 billion.40 Chile, the world’s largest mined copper producer,41 accounted for the largest decrease (down by $1.3 billion). Most of this decrease was in unrefined and refined copper, down by $1.2 billion (22 percent) to $4.2 billion.42 Robust domestic consumption and stockpiling by downstream consuming industries were increasingly satisfied by growing output from domestic mines and refineries.43 The United States is also a major mined copper producer,44 the world’s largest generator of copper scrap,45 and a large inventory holder of refined copper.46


1 USDOC, Census, Full Report on Manufacturers’ Shipments, Inventories and Orders, December 2014, February 4, 2015, 2, table 1, “Value of Manufacturers’ Shipments for Industry Groups.”
2 USDOC, Census, “December 2014 Construction at $982.1 Billion Annual Rate,” February 2, 2015, 1 (“Overview”) and 2 (table 1, “Value of Construction Put in Place in the United States, Not Seasonally Adjusted”).
3 USDOE, EIA, Table 5.1 Crude Oil and Natural Gas Drilling Activity Measurements, February 2015 Monthly Energy Review, February 24, 2015, 87.
4 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), “Significant Events, Trends, and Issues,” January 30, 2015, 7.
5 As appropriate, this section will address total exports, domestic exports, and re-exports.
6 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for commodity subgroup MM020A; accessed February 13, 2015).
7 George, “Gold,” January 30, 2015, 66.
8 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for commodity subgroup MM020A; accessed March 9, 2014).
9 The monthly average (afternoon fix) price for fine gold on the London Bullion Market fell by $144.84 per troy ounce to $1,266.20 per troy ounce (10 percent) in 2014. LBMA, “Gold Prices,” March 10, 2015.
10 WGC, “2014 Ends with Strong Gold Demand in Q4,” February 12, 2015, 1; Street et al., Gold Demand Trends, Full Year 2014, February 12, 2015, 1, 19, 23.
11 Fenton, “Iron and Steel Waste and Scrap,” January 30, 2015, 81.
12 WSA, “Monthly Crude Steel Production 2014” (accessed January 22, 2015); WSA, “Monthly Crude Steel Production 2013” (accessed January 22, 2015).
13 GTIS, Global Trade Atlas database (for HTS heading 7204; accessed February 26, 2015).
14 Tuck, “Iron Ore,” January 30, 2015, 85.
13 Industry-commodity group MM019 (natural and synthetic gemstones) includes pearls, precious and semiprecious stones, and dusts and powders thereof.
16 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for HTS subheading 7102.39; accessed March 12, 2015).
17 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for commodity group MM019; accessed February 13, 2015).
18 Coutsoukis, “The Diamond Industry,” n.d. (accessed March 18, 2015).
19 Olson, “Gemstones,” August 2014, 29.3.
20 Coutsoukis, “The Diamond Industry,” n.d. (accessed March 18, 2015); Olson, “Gemstones,” August 2014, 29.3.
21 Industry representative, telephone interview by USITC staff, March 19, 2015.
22 USDOC, Census, Full Report on Manufacturers’ Shipments, Inventories and Orders, December 2014, February 4, 2015, 2, table 1, “Value of Manufacturers’ Shipments for Industry Groups.”
23 Brininstool, “Copper,” January 30, 2015, 48‒49.
24 Perez, “The Mineral Industry of Mexico,” December 2014, 12.11.
25 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for commodity group MM025; accessed February 13, 2015).
26 WSA, “Monthly Crude Steel Production 2014” (accessed January 22, 2015); WSA, “Monthly Crude Steel Production 2013” (accessed January 22, 2015).
27 Major end users of flat-rolled steel products that reported the highest absolute growth in 2014 included motor vehicle bodies, parts, and trailers; industrial machinery; light trucks and utility vehicles; and heavy-duty trucks. USDOC, Census, Full Report on Manufacturers’ Shipments, Inventories and Orders, December 2014, February 4, 2015, 2, table 1, “Value of Manufacturers’ Shipments for Industry Groups.”
28 Major end users of flat-rolled steel products in the construction industry that reported the highest absolute growth in 2014 included manufacturing facilities, commercial facilities, office buildings, and highways and streets. USDOC, Census, “December 2014 Construction at $982.1 Billion Annual Rate,” February 2, 2015, 1 (“Overview”) and 2 (table 1, “Value of Construction Put in Place in the United States, Not Seasonally Adjusted”).
29 AISI, “Pig Iron and Raw Steel Production,” December 2014.
30 AISI, “Net Shipments of Steel Mill Products,” December 2013 and December 2014.
31 Major end users of tubular steel products in the construction industry that reported the leading absolute growth in values of construction put in place included manufacturing facilities, transportation infrastructure, sewage and waste disposal systems, and water supply systems, among others. USDOC, Census, “December 2014 Construction at $982.1 Billion Annual Rate,” February 2, 2015, 1 (“Overview”) and 2 (table 1, “Value of Construction Put in Place in the United States, Not Seasonally Adjusted”).
32 USDOE, EIA, February 2014 Monthly Energy Review, February 24, 2015, 87, table 5.1, “Crude Oil and Natural Gas Drilling Activity Measurements.”
33 Coutsoukis, “The Diamond Industry,” n.d. (accessed March 18, 2015); Olson, “Gemstones,” August 2014, 29.3; WDC, “The Diamond Industry Fact Sheet,” n.d. (accessed March 9, 2015).
34 Bates, “Brands, Basics, and Floating Diamonds,” December 30, 2014; Bates, “Jewelry Business Strong This Holiday: MasterCard,” December 29, 2014.
35 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for HTS subheading 7113.19; accessed March 11 and 12, 2015).
36 George, “Gold,” January 30, 2015, 67; Katrivanos, “Silver,” January 30, 2015, 147.
37 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for commodity subgroup MM020A; accessed March 9, 2015).
38 Street et al., Gold Demand Trends, Full Year 2014, 2015, 9‒10, 24.
39 WGC, “2014 Ends with Strong Gold Demand,” 2015, 1.
40 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for commodity subgroup MM036A; accessed March 9, 2015).
41 Brininstool, “Copper,” January 30, 2015, 49.
42 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for commodity subgroup MM036A; accessed March 9, 2014).
43 WBMS, “Copper,” March 2015, 78.
44 Ibid., 38–41.
45 Ibid., 43.
46 Ibid., 49.