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As the Coronavirus shutdown continues, new sectors of the economy are hit

As I wrote yesterday, the economic cost of the Coronavirus shutdown continues to mount. Until now, the burden has been mostly borne by workers in the leisure and hospitality and personal services industries. But the longer the shutdown goes on and the longer we go without knowing when it will end, other sectors are being dragged down too.

On Monday, Cleveland-Cliffs announced that it will idle Northshore Mining facilities in Babbitt and Silver Bay until at least mid-August, owing to the collapse in steel demand: according to the Iron and Steel Institute, capacity utilization of the country’s blast furnaces has fallen from 80.5% to 56.1% in the last month.

The Brainerd Dispatch reports:

Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves said the pandemic has hurt North American manufacturing and steel production. Iron ore pellets produced at each mine’s plants are the key ingredient in steel.

“As our steel customers rationalize their operations’ capacities, we made the decision to adjust our iron ore production during the first half of the year and not continue to build additional iron ore inventory until market conditions improve,” Goncalves said. “Once the North American steel market improves, Cleveland-Cliffs will be able to quickly restart and ramp up production.”

Cliffs spokesperson Patricia Persico said 470 of the 570 employees at Northshore Mining would be laid off. The 100 remaining employees “will be retained to maintain the yard and dock crews for loading vessels and a small staff for care and maintenance of the assets and fire watch,” Persico said.

Silver Bay Mayor Scott Johnson said many residents expected layoffs after Cliffs halted construction on its hot-briquetted iron production plant last month due to the pandemic. The plant, which was expected to open in June, will be supplied by 3.5 million tons of direct-reduced iron pellets from Northshore Mining every year. Northshore began producing that DR-grade pellet last summer in anticipation of the HBI plant’s opening.

“It’s something we see. People that live in mining towns are used to these occurrences, and with the downturn in the market and the stopping of construction on the Toledo plant, which was going to be a major recipient of our new pellets, we kind of knew this was coming,” Johnson said.

We have shown that we can stop an economy dead in its tracks pretty easily. But can we restart a stopped economy with as much ease?

Tony Barrett, an economics professor at the College of St. Scholastica, said even when plants like General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler reopen, demand for goods could be slow to return:

“The major uncertainty now is: how do we restart the economy and how quickly? The conventional wisdom, at least as of today, seems to be we’re going to reopen the economy rather slowly. There’s a lot of people that are not going to be going out and consuming because they’ve got to rebuild their savings, they’ve got to maybe pay off debt, maybe back rent, things like that. And all that is going to really make the economy slower,” Barrett said.

“The correlation between the demand for taconite and overall economic activity is close to one-to-one,” Barrett said. “And until the economy shows significant signs of life, it’s going to be tough for the Range.”

The economic cost of the Coronavirus shutdown is already high, and it will get higher the longer it goes on.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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