Minerals and Metals

Author: Gerald Houck
International Trade Analyst

Change in 2015 from 2014:

  To view changing data, mouseover the graphic below.
  • U.S. total exports: Decreased by $17.2 billion (11 percent) to $135.7 billion
  • U.S. general imports: Decreased by $16.1 billion (8 percent) to $188.9 billion

U.S. trade in minerals and metals continued to be concentrated among three leading trading partners: Canada, China, and Mexico (table MM 1). In 2015, these three countries together accounted for 42 percent of both U.S. general imports and U.S. total exports. The role of China as a trading partner, however, changed during 2014–15, as U.S. domestic exports to China decreased by 26 percent, proportionally far more than those to any other major trading partner, and imports from China increased by 3 percent, in contrast to decreases in imports from every other major trading partner.

Table MM.1: Minerals and metals: U.S. exports and general imports, by selected trading partners, 2011–15

 
Million $
 
Item 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Absolute change, 
2014–15
Percent
change, 
2014–15
U.S. exports of domestic merchandise:              
    Canada 28,825 28,948 27,739 27,443 23,604 -3,839 -14.0
    China 13,517 12,188 11,959 10,442 7,739 -2,703 -25.9
    Mexico 15,829 17,757 18,797 20,893 20,342 -552 -2.6
    India 2,838 4,644 2,641 2,399 4,009 1,610 67.1
    Germany 4,351 3,928 4,043 3,820 3,639 -181 -4.7
    Israel 1,157 1,909 857 579 955 376 64.9
    Japan 3,678 3,078 3,166 3,427 3,153 -273 -8.0
    United Kingdom 13,115 11,153 4,759 6,818 6,725 -93 -1.4
    South Korea 4,207 3,796 3,681 3,334 2,882 -453 -13.6
    Switzerland 13,194 14,788 13,131 7,244 7,725 481 6.6
    All other 40,189 38,781 42,695 35,368 28,958 -6,410 -18.1
        Total domestic exports 140,901 140,968 133,470 121,768 109,730 -12,038 -9.9
Foreign exports 24,111 23,012 27,053 31,139 26,013 -5,126 -16.5
Total U.S. exports (domestic and foreign) 165,012 163,980 160,523 152,907 135,743 -17,165 -11.2
U.S. general imports:              
    Canada 35,352 32,431 32,671 33,261 29,819 -3,443 -10.4
    China 25,369 27,033 27,786 30,927 31,944 1,017 3.3
    Mexico 21,935 21,997 19,278 19,404 17,983 -1,421 -7.3
    India 9,150 8,673 10,343 11,072 10,852 -220 -2.0
    Germany 7,884 7,921 7,743 8,169 7,738 -431 -5.3
    Israel 9,747 8,818 9,385 9,961 9,011 -950 -9.5
    Japan 7,083 8,153 7,431 7,392 6,753 -639 -8.6
    United Kingdom 3,259 3,713 3,332 3,841 3,071 -770 -20.0
    South Korea 5,052 5,907 5,550 7,712 6,907 -805 -10.4
    Switzerland 1,671 1,630 1,435 2,050 1,670 -380 -18.5
    All other 67,149 68,802 65,487 71,258 63,200 -8,059 -11.3
        Total general imports 193,651 195,077 190,441 205,048 188,946 -16,101 -7.9

Source: Compiled from official statistics of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 2011–15 period. These reflect all official revisions of previously published data up to June 2015 (accessed February 10, 2016).
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).

Prices for mineral commodities, including both precious metals and base metals, were broadly lower in 2015 than in 2014, contributing to the overall decreases in the value of exports and imports. The quantities of materials traded also generally decreased due to reduced economic activity abroad.

U.S. Exports1

Steel mill products

U.S domestic exports of minerals and metals fell in 2015 by $12.0 billion (10 percent) to $109.7 billion (table MM.2). The largest decrease was in exports of steel mill products, which fell by $3.1 billion (20 percent) to $12.8 billion. The category of steel mill products registering the largest decrease was pipes and tubes of carbon and alloy steel, of which exports decreased by $1.2 billion (33 percent) to $2.6 billion, primarily to Canada. Drilling for crude petroleum and natural gas, development of petroleum and natural gas gathering systems, and building of pipelines are major drivers of steel pipe and tube markets. The precipitous drop in crude petroleum and natural gas prices that occurred in late 2014 and early 2015 made such activities less economical and oil and gas developments slowed dramatically. Largely as a result, the average number of rotary drilling rigs in operation in Canada dropped by almost one-half between 2014 and 2015 (from 380 to 191).2

Table MM.2: Minerals and metals: Leading changes in U.S. exports and imports, 2011–15

 
Million $
 
Item 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Absolute change, 
2014–15
Percent
change, 
2014–15
U.S. domestic exports:              
    Increases:              
        Natural and synthetic gemstones (MM019) 3,709 3,631 2,357 2,184 3,040 856 39.2
    Decreases:              
        Steel mill products (MM025) 16,663 16,991 16,041 15,928 12,816 -3,111 -19.5
        Iron and steel waste and scrap (MM023) 11,475 9,421 7,579 6,171 4,116 -2,055 -33.3
        Precious metals and non-numismatic coins (MM020) 42,136 43,091 38,616 26,577 25,153 -1,424 -5.4
        Copper and related articles (MM036) 8,896 8,821 8,233 7,519 6,130 -1,389 -18.5
    All other 58,022 59,012 60,645 63,390 58,475 -4,915 -7.8
        Total 140,901 140,968 133,470 121,768 109,730 -12,038 -9.9
U.S. general imports:              
    Decreases:              
        Steel mill products (MM025) 30,890 34,231 29,117 38,163 30,493 -7,671 -20.1
        Precious metals and non-numismatic coins (MM020) 34,329 32,164 30,216 26,817 22,084 -4,733 -17.6
        Copper and related articles (MM036) 10,979 9,732 10,155 9,141 7,914 -1,226 -13.4
        Natural and synthetic gemstones (MM019) 23,599 21,601 24,922 26,490 25,386 -1,104 -4.2
    All other 93,856 97,349 96,031 104,437 103,070 -1,368 -1.3
        Total 193,651 195,077 190,441 205,048 188,946 -16,101 -7.9

Source: Compiled from official statistics of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 2011–15 period. These reflect all official revisions of previously published data up to June 2015 (accessed February 10, 2016).
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.

 

Ferrous Scrap

U.S. domestic exports of iron and steel waste and scrap (ferrous scrap) decreased by $2.1 billion (33 percent) to $4.1 billion. The decline was primarily due to generally lower prices, as the average unit value of exported ferrous scrap fell by 21 percent. The quantity of scrap exported also declined, by 15 percent, as demand for scrap fell. This trend reflected reduced steel production in Asian markets, where exports of steel products from China accounted for an increasing share of consumption. By contrast, exports of ferrous scrap to Turkey, the largest single-country market for U.S. ferrous scrap, increased by 10 percent in volume.

Gemstones

Domestic exports of natural and synthetic gemstones increased by $856 million (39 percent), the only products in the sector for which U.S. exports increased significantly. Leading this shift was the $956 million (58 percent) growth in exports of non-industrial worked diamonds (that is, gem-quality cut and polished diamonds). This trend resulted from both higher quantities of exports (up by 552,000 carats, or 16 percent) and higher average unit values (up by $173 per carat, or 37 percent).3

Re-exports of Gemstones

In contrast, U.S. re-exports of natural and synthetic gemstones decreased by $3.7 billion (18 percent), overshadowing the increase in domestic exports. Re-exports of diamonds (those exported in substantially the same condition as when imported) fell by $3.4 billion (18 percent) to $15.3 billion. The quantity of re-exports of diamonds dropped by 27 percent to 7,356 carats, although the unit value increased by 11 percent. Growth in global retail sales of diamonds was dampened in 2015 by uncertainties along the production chain, including reports of the shaky financial standing of certain processors (cutters and polishers) in Israel; layoffs and shutdowns among processors in India; shifting consumer preferences for luxury goods (toward high-technology personal electronics and away from precious jewelry); unprecedented purchase deferrals allowed by De Beers on offers of its uncut diamonds; the slowing of the Chinese economy; and the global summer stock market slump.4

Like Belgium, Hong Kong, India, Israel, and Switzerland,, the United States lacks mineable diamond resources, but all of these economies are well-established centers in the global network for diamond processing and trading. Hence, both U.S. imports and exports of diamonds are primarily with these trading partners.5 U.S. exports declined to three of these centers—Israel (19 percent), Hong Kong (14 percent), and Belgium (22 percent)—while exports to India and Switzerland were generally unchanged.

Precious Metals

U.S. domestic exports of precious metals and nonmonetary coins decreased by $1.4 billion (5 percent). Leading this shift was a $1.5 billion (7.5 percent) decrease in exports of gold—both unrefined (doré) and refined (bullion and grains). Decreased export quantities of these unwrought forms of gold (down 1.4 percent) and lower average unit values (down by 6.1 percent) both contributed to the export decrease. U.S. mines and smelters produced 10 metric tons less doré in 2015 due to the lower-grade ores extracted at two major mines, lower mill throughput volumes during repair of a pit-wall collapse at another major mine, and closures of some smaller mines. Similarly, U.S. refineries' production of bullion and grains from primary sources (doré) decreased by an estimated 3 metric tons; that from secondary sources (recovered scrap), by an estimated 21 metric tons.6

Global demand for gold was relatively flat for 2015 as increases in investment and central-bank demand failed to surpass declines in demand for precious-jewelry and industrial gold. Moreover, global production of gold fell by 3.5 percent as growth in mine output slowed to the lowest rate since 2008 and the rate of scrap recovery declined to multiyear lows.7

Gold prices continued to fall through 2015 as global supply exceeded global demand. The narrowing of this surplus supply from the previous year was not enough to offset investors and traders' perceptions of slowing macroeconomic conditions (e.g., both lower economic growth in China and anticipated interest-rate increases in the United States) that exerted downward pressure on global gold prices. Monthly average gold prices on the London Bullion Market fell by $106.08 per troy ounce (9.1 percent) to $1,160.12 in 2015.8

Copper

U.S. domestic exports of copper and related articles decreased by $1.4 billion (18.5 percent) to $6.1 billion. Leading this shift was a $708 million (20.4 percent) decline in exports of copper waste and scrap from $3.5 billion to $2.8 billion. The United States exported less copper waste and scrap in 2015 (down by 8.6 percent) in response to the continued slowdown in global demand, particularly from Chinese metals-consuming industries.9 China accounted for 60 percent of the decline in the value of U.S. exports of copper waste and scrap during 2015. Decreased average unit values (down by 12.9 percent), reflecting both weaker copper prices and differences in the scrap mix, also contributed to the lower copper waste and scrap exports. In addition, exports of unrefined (anode) and refined (cathode) unwrought copper declined by $304 million (50.4 percent) to $299 million. The United States exported lesser quantities of both anode copper (down by 9.7 percent) and cathode copper (down by 44.7 percent) because of slowing global industrial demand (especially in China) and lower domestic output. U.S. anode-copper production from smelters decreased by 110,000 metric tons (8 percent) because of production cutbacks at several major mines in Arizona and Utah; reduced concentrator output; and the shutdown for maintenance of a smelter at a mine in Utah. U.S. refinery output of cathode copper from both primary (anode) and secondary (recovered waste and scrap) sources decreased by 46,000 metric tons (4 percent).10

U.S. Imports

Steel mill products

The value of imports of steel mill products dropped by $7.7 billion (20 percent) to $30.4 billion from the record high level of $38.5 billion set in 2014. The generally lower price of mineral products mentioned above contributed to the decrease in value, but the quantity of imports was also lower by 12 percent. The decrease was broadly due to reduced demand for steel products by the oil and gas industry, as mentioned above and weak demand for construction related steel products.

Despite increases in economic activity in its most important markets, apparent consumption for steel products, which does not consider inventory change, declined in 2015. The production of automobiles and construction (especially nonresidential construction) are traditionally the most important U.S. markets for steel mill products. The total value of construction put in place in the United States grew by 10.6 percent to $1.1 trillion, composed of an increase of 13 percent in residential construction and 9 percent in nonresidential construction (to $425 billion and $674 billion, respectively).11 Gross vehicle production (including all trucks) in the United States totaled 12.1 million units in 2015, up 4 percent from 2014.12 Nonetheless, apparent consumption of steel mill products (excluding semifinished imports) contracted by 10 percent to 98 million metric tons from 109 million metric tons.13

Inventory reductions were a major factor in the drop in steel apparent consumption and imports. U.S. service center shipments of steel mill products were down by 2.9 million metric tons (7.5 percent) in 2015 compared to 2014.14 However, service centers also reduced their inventory of steel products by 1.5 million metric tons, whereas during 2014 they had increased their inventory by 1.4 million metric tons.15 Therefore, of the total decline in apparent consumption of 11 million metric tons, 2.9 million metric tons, or 26 percent can be attributed to changes in inventory by service centers alone It is believed that consumers likewise reduced inventory, accounting for an additional reduction in apparent consumption.

The value of imports of semifinished, non-alloy steel products (steel imported by U.S. steel companies for rolling and finishing in the United States) fell by $2.4 billion (45.7 percent). The quantity of such semifinished steel imports dropped by 31.3 percent and the average unit value was down by 20.9 percent as steel prices fell during 2015. Semifinished steel is primarily imported by those few steel mills that do not have their own steel melting facilities to produce semifinished intermediate product. The fact that semifinished steel imports decreased proportionately much more than finished steel products indicates the likelihood that inventory reduction, rather than reduced consumption, was the main cause of the decrease in imports. Brazil and Russia were the two largest sources of imported semifinished steel and accounted for most of the decline.

Imports of steel pipes and tubes (MM025L) decreased by $2,302 billion (23 percent). The decrease was primarily due to reduced imports of oil-country tubular goods used in the production and development of crude petroleum and natural gas, and of line pipe used for the gathering and transportation of crude petroleum and gas. As noted above, U.S. petroleum and gas drilling activity decreased significantly in 2015 due to the decline in prices of oil and natural gas, resulting in reduced demand for steel tubular products. The average number of rotary drilling rigs in operation in the United States dropped almost in half between 2014 and 2015 (from 1,862 to 962.)16

Gemstones

General imports of natural and synthetic gemstones slid by $1.1 billion (4 percent). The quantity decrease was small (down by 5 percent), but still overshadowed the slight rise in the average unit value of the imported gemstones (up only 1 percent) which was attributable to higher value-added import mix. Due to the drop in re-exports of imported diamonds, a larger supply of imported diamonds was available to meet the relatively robust domestic demand for diamond jewelry.17

Precious metals

Imports of precious metals and related articles decreased by $4.7 billion (17.6 percent). Leading this shift was the $2.7 billion (20.8 percent) decline in imports of unwrought gold in the forms of unrefined doré and refined bullion and grains. Imports of unwrought gold were down in terms of both quantities (down by 14.1 percent) and average unit values (down by 7.8 percent). U.S. gold consumption in 2015 was estimated to have remained relatively flat from the previous year’s reported level of 150 metric tons, but with a significant quantity (42 metric tons) being met from domestic inventories rather than by imports.18 Some industry observers attributed downward pressure on gold prices to market uncertainty in regard to the timing of an anticipated interest-rate hike by the U.S. Federal Reserve. This concern may have promoted dishoarding, as higher interest rates increase the opportunity cost of holding gold as a physical asset.19

Copper

Imports of copper and related articles decreased by $1.2 billion (13.4 percent) to $7.9 billion. Leading this shift was the $410 million (9.7 percent) decrease in imports of unrefined (anode) and refined (cathode) unwrought copper. Increased import quantities of anodes and cathodes were overshadowed by the $1,360 per-metric-ton (20 percent) decrease in the average annual settlement price on the London Metal Exchange for refined copper.20 Although apparent domestic consumption was estimated to have remained flat for 2015, U.S. consuming industries increasingly sought foreign sources of refined copper; U.S. net import reliance (as a share of apparent domestic consumption) was estimated to have risen from 31 percent to 36 percent.21

 

1 As appropriate, this section will address total exports, domestic exports, and re-exports.
2 Baker Hughes, North American Rotary Rig Count (2000–Current).
3 USITC/USDOC DataWeb (accessed March 17, 2016).
4 Barnato, “Diamond Prices Hit by Stock Market Slump,” September 10, 2015; Bates, “Diamond Industry Crisis Worsens,” July 27, 2015; Cohen and Rainovitch, “Uncertain Future for Global Diamond Trade,” June 24, 2015; Gustafson, “Diamond Sales Losing Their Sparkle,” December 27, 2015.
5 Further details about international transactions are not readily available due to the closely held corporate structure of the global diamond processing and trading industry.
6 George, “Gold,” January 2016, 72.
7 WGC, “Gold Demand Trends Full Year 2015,” 2–3, 20; WGC, “Gold Demand Resilient in 2015,” February 11, 2016.
8 LBMA, “LBMA Gold Prices” (accessed April 25, 2016); WGC, “Gold Demand Trends Full Year 2015,” 2016, 20.
9 For more information about the impact of China’s slowing economic growth on global consumption and trade of minerals and metals, see the “Overall Economic Performance“ webpage.
10 Brininstool, “Copper,” January 2016, 54–55.
11 U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Value of Construction Put in Place 2008—2015, April 7, 2016.
12 Ward’s Automotive Reports, “WardsAuto North America Vehicle Production Summary,” January 25, 2016, 8.
13 Calculated by Commission staff.
14 Metals Service Center Institute (MSCI), Metals Activity Report, December 2014 and December 2015.
15 Metals Service Center Institute (MSCI), Metals Activity Report, December 2013, December 2014, and December 2015.
16 Baker Hughes, North American Rotary Rig Count, April 8, 2016.
17 Bates, “Bright Christmas: Diamonds Boost Holiday Jewelry Sales,” February 5, 2016; Rapaport News, “U.S. Diamond Jewelry Demand Surges,” April 27, 2016.
18 Consumption—specifically, apparent domestic consumption—is calculated by Commission staff as refinery production plus imports for consumption less exports. The difference between apparent domestic consumption less reported consumption is the amount drawn down or dishoarded from industry and private inventories. For 2014, apparent domestic consumption exceeded reported consumption by 22 metric tons, which can be interpreted as the amount of gold accumulated into inventories. George, “Gold,” January 2016, 72.
19 George, “Gold,” January 2016, 72.
20 WBMS, “Metal Prices, London Metal Exchange,” January 2016, 148.
21 Net import reliance is calculated by the U.S. Geological Survey staff as imports less exports plus adjustments for industry inventory changes for refined copper. Brininstool, “Copper,” January 2016, 54–55.