US tariffs on Mexico - consequences for the cement industry

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Talk of US tariffs on imports from Mexico was not troubling the National Chamber of Cement (CANACEM) this week. Director general Yanina Navarro pointed out to local media that Mexico only exports 1.42Mt or 3.4% of its total production of 44Mt/yr to its northern neighbour. This is a little higher than the 1.04Mt reported by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 2018, although that figure is believed to have underestimated imports to El Paso district in Texas. Mexico was the fifth largest exporter of hydraulic cement and clinker to the US behind Canada, Turkey, China and Greece.

Commentators pointed out that Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua (GCC) might be affected more that other Mexican producers as two of its plants are close to the border at Samalayuca and Juárez in Chihuahua. However, GCC operates five plants in the US. Cemex also has a plant near the US border at Ensenada in Baja California. Yet it’s the fourth largest producer in the US by integrated production capacity. If either company had its export markets seriously disrupted by any border duties they could likely focus on production in the US to compensate.

Once again this is similar to the situation with the proposed border wall where, although President Donald Trump wanted Mexico to pay, it would have been Mexican companies benefiting the most from any construction boom. This was also the case with the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The international structure of many of the larger Mexican cement producers insulates them from these kinds of political and trade disputes.

Mexican producers shouldn’t be too complacent though. Tariffs are likely to play havoc with integrated supply chains as in the car industry. Building materials will probably be affected less so but that 1.42Mt export figure is more than the production capacity of many individual Mexican cement plants. Taking away this export market will drag on the industry’s utilisation rate and alternate destinations may be hard to find. Note the trouble Mexico has had distributing its products in Peru. The Supreme Court there upheld a fine this week on UNACEM for trying to block the distribution of Cemex’s brand of cement in 2014. Also, although Trump’s tariffs on Chinese products may not have much of an impact on building materials, USGS data shows that Chinese imports of cement to the US fell by 27% year-on-year to 0.76Mt in the six months to the end of February 2019. Similar reductions could await Mexico’s exporters.

The general consensus from the free market press is that tariffs will ultimately hurt both economies. In agreement the Portland Cement Association (PCA) published a market report in April 2018 on the effects of tariffs on US cement consumption in the wake of tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from the European Union (EU), Canada and Mexico. The summary was that all forms of tariff – from minor to a global trade war – would likely result in reduced US cement consumption to varying degrees due to slower economic growth. A full-scale set of tariffs on Mexican imports is likely to induce similar consequences.


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