Aluminum-Foil Duties Won’t Make America Great

Aluminum foil wraps burritos, physics equipment and the highlighted tresses of hair-salon customers. It forms flexible ducts and lasagna pans, lines cigarette packs and fast-food sandwich wrappers. It hides between layers of film in flexible packaging. It protects aspirin bottles from tampering, petri dishes from light and tractor engines from overheating. It tops yogurt cups and peanut cans. It backs blister packs of antihistamines, antacids and birth-control pills. It goes into automotive parts and air-conditioning systems.

U.S. manufacturers rely on aluminum foil. So do nail salons, building contractors and bakeries.

QuickTake Free Trade and Its Foes

To the Trump administration, however, none of these businesses—or their employees—matter as much as a couple of domestic aluminum makers. Disregarding the ripple effects, the Commerce Department has said it will impose preliminary duties of 97 percent to 162 percent on the Chinese imports that supply much of the U.S. market with thin aluminum foil. That’s likely to have much more far-reaching effects on U.S. companies than the minor deals President Donald Trump announced on his trip to China.

Aluminum-foil buyers, many of them swing-state manufacturers, are reeling at the size of the duties, which would at least double the price of Chinese foil.

“It’s pretty much saying, ‘Don’t buy from China, you can’t buy from them ever again,'” says Jim Kelley, vice president of Comet Metals Inc., in Solon, Ohio. The president may think he’s getting tough on China, but his administration’s policy is causing plenty of collateral damage at home.

Comet is what’s known in the trade as an aluminum converter. It buys truckloads of foil in huge rolls and cuts it into smaller pieces for specialty uses. Converters serve two types of customers: those who need small quantities and those who can’t wait for a large shipment. They’re the middlemen between aluminum plants and the rest of the economy.

With Chinese suppliers effectively off-limits, they’re now scrambling to find new sources and anticipating steep price increases. Only two companies have U.S. mills making the thin-gauge foil affected by the duties. The ones owned by Sweden-based Gränges are already selling all they can produce; the company has announced plans to expand capacity at its Tennessee mill by 2019. Converters say that JW Aluminum Co., the Mt. Holly, South Carolina-based company that lobbied strongly…

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