China’s ascendance to the newest low-cost industrial epicenter fueled a demand for commodities required in construction and manufacturing such as copper, coal, and steel. China began investing heavily in capacity to endogenously supply itself. There were two options for steel – 1) blast-furnaces (“BOF”s): large plants using iron ore and coal, with attractive economics at capacity but high breakevens at low utilizations; and 2) electric-arc furnaces (“EAF”s): smaller, modern plants that used iron ore and recycled steel, with less scale but flexible production. China built almost exclusively BOFs. 
Initially, capacity expanded in-line with consumption. Eventually however, the financial crisis stunted demand, but new facilities kept opening. By 2015, China had more capacity than the rest of the world and began exporting its surplus, creating a supply/demand imbalance. 
Source: Compiled by author from Bloomberg LP and World Steel Association Data, November 2017.
AK Steel (“AKS”) is one of four major US producers and operates both BOFs and EAFs (the others focus on one). Pre-2008, the four jostled for market share while attempting to maintain stability. Thus, steel prices generally reacted to demand and feedstock costs.  However, the influx of Chinese exports created a new paradigm. A customer now had a choice between a Chinese and US supplier, and would juxtapose (A) the US price versus (B) (i) the Chinese price + (ii) incremental shipping costs + (iii) a premium for longer lead times –in equilibrium, US prices would be higher than China’s by a spread of (ii) + (iii). 
Source: Compiled by author from Bloomberg LP and Woodmac Mackenzie data, November 2017.
For years, this spread oscillated around ~$150: if the US charged a higher premium, imports rose, driving prices down; conversely, if the US charged less, exports fell until prices recovered. However, in mid-2013, the US OEMs refused to cede price, but since they could not lower production, inventory began to build. In Jan 2015, the OEMs caved as imports reached 40% of consumption, and prices remained depressed until the accumulated inventory could normalize. The combination of low prices and low production during the subsequent destocking led to a painful year, prompting both countries to turn to their governments.
The Chinese government did not care about profitability; their goal was to avoid social unrest caused by unemployment. Thus, “protectionism” came in the form of social financing –capital that allowed unprofitable firms to avoid closing, thus preventing the global supply glut from equilibrating.  Conversely, American desired protectionism was import duties. OEMs filed an anti-dumping case with the ITC, but after the election they pushed President Trump to enact duties under executive order.   While both governments placated the local businesses, they simultaneously attempted to appease international trade principles: China committed to a capacity reduction schedule, while the US ensured duties would only follow evidence of dumping.  The result has been immense volatility: US steel prices have moved between $365 and $650 since 2016, and could swing $30 following a Trump comment. 
This uncertainty creates material production issues for AKS. Since BOF’s cannot operate at partial capacity, AKS must decide whether to operate at the beginning of each year; assuming a BOF has breakeven costs of ~$575, AKS doesn’t know if it will lose $200 or make $100/ton.  The decision is complicated by the high cost of idling and re-starting a plant (unions, maintenance, etc.). Additional uncertainty exists since, unlike some other OEMs, AKS imports some feedstocks, which themselves could be affected by tariffs. 
In response to this new archetype, AKS idled its Kentucky BOF (moved orders to its other two BOFs).  Next, it has attempted to move its facilities away from the production of commodity HRC steel towards more specialized “up-stream” value-add services that customize HRC for an end-user. These products have higher margins, quality-focused customers, less import competition, and lower price volatility. Additionally, AKS has been spending R&D with goal to shift certain products from their BOFs to their EAFs, which have more production flexibility. 
While I agree with these steps, I believe AKS must go further. While difficult to admit, I believe BOFs are no longer economically viable given the US’s relative access to feedstocks and high labor costs. These plants are over 100 years old with structural disadvantages versus modern facilities, and AKS should not rely on protectionism to achieve profitability. Rather than keeping the Kentucky BOF idled with the hopes of eventually restarting it, I would permanently shutter all facilities that cannot be converted to downstream. I would then move as much production as possible to the remaining EAFs, with the hopes of consolidating into one BOF, downstream facilities, and EAFs. With this portfolio, AKS could actually benefit from cheap HRC imports, which could be used as feedstocks into the EAF and value-add processes.
While outstanding questions need to be addressed – such as evaluating the viability / social impact of closing the BOFs and ensuring customers will purchase EAF products – the bottom line is AKS must transition to the new reality before it is too late.
 Keith Walker, Steel Folk Co., “The Basics of Iron and Steelmaking,” (word file) downloaded from Steel Times Intl. website, [www.steeltimesint.com/contentimages/features/Basics_of_Iron_and_Steel_Making.doc], accessed November 2017.
 World Steel Association, “Steel Statistical Yearbook 2016” (PDF file), downloaded from World Steel Association website, [https://www.worldsteel.org/en/dam/jcr:37ad1117-fefc-4df3-b84f-6295478ae460/Steel+Statistical+Yearbook+2016.pdf], accessed November 2017.
 Heather Long, “China, not President Trump, is suddenly helping American steel.” The Washington Post, August 7, 2017, [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/07/china-not-trump-is-suddenly-helping-american-steel], accessed November 2017.
 Author’s phone interview with Evan L. Kurtz (Morgan Stanley Equity Research), New York, NY, November 8, 2017.
 Zhiyao Lu, “State of Play in the Chinese Steel Industry,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, July 5, 2016, [https://piie.com/blogs/china-economic-watch/state-play-chinese-steel-industry], accessed November 2017.
 “U.S. Department of Commerce Issues Affirmative Final Antidumping Duty Determination on Steel Concrete Reinforcing Bar From Taiwan,” US Government, Department of Commerce press release (Washington D.C., July 21, 2017).
 Found Egbaria, “No Resolution For Section 232s, Yet, As Trump Administration Mulls Options.” Metal Miner, August 2, 2017, [https://agmetalminer.com/2017/08/02/section-232-president-donald-trump-china], accessed November 2017.
 The Economist, “Making sense of capacity Cuts in China.” September 9, 2017, [https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21728640-investors-have-been-cheered-sweeping-cutbacks-they-should-look-more-closely-making-sense], accessed November 2017.
 U.S Midwest Domestic Hot-Rolled Coil Steel Index Futures (HRC1 Comdty), Bloomberg LP, accessed November 2017.
 Author’s phone interview with Sean Wondrack (Deutsche Bank Credit Research), New York, NY, November 8, 2017.
 AK Steel Holdings Corporation, December 31, 2017 Form 10-K (filed February 17, 2017), via Bloomberg LP, accessed November 2017.
 David E. Malloy, “Awaiting improved market, AK Steel plant still idle.” The Herald Dispatch, December 22, 2016, [http://www.herald-dispatch.com/news/awaiting-improved-market-ak-steel-plant-still-idle/article_417781e2-1f72-5f79-b5de-42fb9ca5840e.html], accessed November 2017.
 Roger Newport, Chief Executive Officer; Kirk Reich, President and Chief Operating Officer, remarks made on AK Steel Holdings Corporation 2017 3rd Quarter Earnings Call, December 31, 2017. From transcript provided by Bloomberg LP, accessed November 2017.