Articles in Category: Public Policy

This week, we asked if cheap Chinese steel imports are really that bad for the U.S.? After all, if Beijing and China’s regional governments are subsidizing steel production exported to the U.S. to the tune of 522% for cold-rolled and 451% for corrosion-resistant, aren’t U.S. manufacturers gaining a huge cost advantage on the finished products they ship back to the People’s Republic? Or even sell domestically?

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U.S. Producers certainly don’t see it that way. Neither do steel producers in most of the developed world, save China. 12 Steel associations from the Americas and Europe released another strongly worded letter to governments around the world, lamenting Chinese overproduction. Just look at those tariffs! The steel associations really mean business this time!

Nice job on the ditch, USA! I’m China, I’m here to fill it back in. Source: Adobe Stock/Kara.

China, of course, doesn’t see it this way at all and has previously said, through its Ministry of Commerce, that its steel industry is merely “export competitive.” It’s certainly a novel defense, but it would also be the equivalent of Tom Brady saying his footballs are only “deflation competitive” without dealing with why they are so. Or Russia saying Crimea is “annexation competitive” without saying why it should stop being a part of Ukraine and start becoming a part of the federation.

What is Protectionism?

Still, U.S. regulators like the Commerce Department and the International Trade Administration may want to tone down their heavy anti-dumping and countervailing duties decisions as 522% and 451% is an awful lot of anti-dumping and countervailing duties and the extreme outlier positions that Commerce has staked out could garner sympathy for China in front of a future World Trade Organization court. Read more

On Wednesday, the People’s Bank of China weakened the yuan/renminbi to its lowest level in five years. The actual cut was small: only about 0.34%. The Chinese yuan closed 0.2% weaker on Tuesday at 6.559 per dollar compared with that morning’s midpoint of 6.5468. Since the end of April, the currency’s value has dropped three weeks in a row.

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It did not send world markets spiraling downward as panicked investors did last August when China devalued its currency by nearly 2%, or in early January, when it cut by about 0.5%.

How Fast is the Chinese Economy Growing?

China’s ruling Communist Party still claims the country is growing 6.5% to 7% a year. Capital Economics, among other independent forecasters, believes the real number is closer to 4.2%.

Bloomberg_yuanfix_550_052516

Click for full size. Source: Bloomberg News

Market watchers believe there is a struggle going on between China’s top leaders on what to do next.

The Wall Street Journal reported that, behind closed doors in March, some of China’s most prominent economists and bankers bluntly asked the PBOC to stop fighting the financial markets and let the value of the nation’s currency fall. They supposedly got nowhere with bank officials.

Read more

Domestic HRC steel prices have surged 67% since they hit a floor just six months ago.

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The duties imposed on steel products caused imports to taper down in a big way this year and U.S. steel mills now have the power to raise their base selling prices. Moreover, China’s stimulus measures boosted demand for steel in this first half, causing prices in China to rise, too.

Domestic HRC prices continue to surge

Domestic HRC prices continue to surge. Source: MetalMiner Index

Earlier this month we’ve heard many analysts say the recent steel price rally was purely speculative, without a fundamental justification for the price swings, as steel-rebar and iron-ore futures traded in China went into sharp decline in recent weeks. However, U.S. domestic prices are rising without looking back, at least for now.

Higher U.S Steel Prices: Is That What We Really Want?

Some firms have lost a ton of money in recent years as China created global oversupply, bringing global steel prices down with massive exports. In the face of rising imports, American production has dropped and U.S. steel producers are justifiably unhappy with the circumstances.

Now U.S. policymakers seem determined to follow a protectionist path because, truth to be said, it’s unfair that a company has to go out of business because of the stupidity of Chinese policymakers. These protectionism measures might or might not help the U.S. steel industry in the long-term, however, this raises another question: will this really help the broader U.S. economy?

Steel Exports, Tariff Economics

The cost of import restrictions directly equals the harm they do to manufacturers of value-added products that use steel as an input. According to Department of Commerce statistics, downstream steel manufacturers that utilize steel generate much more jobs and wealth to the U.S economy than what metal manufacturers generate.

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This subject is very controversial and, perhaps, there is not a right answer to the issue as someone is always going to get hurt. What’s true is that China is losing money in the form of subsidies to save its steel industry and keep its massive population employed, and by doing that China is actually transferring so much of its wealth into the U.S. by selling low-priced steel. Which, doesn’t sound as bad as U.S. steel producers make it sound

In exactly 30 days the people of Britain will vote on whether to leave the European Union.

Free Download: The May 2016 MMI Report

For the people of the U.K., and indeed the rest of Europe their decision could be a turning point in the future of their country and the wider European community. It is no exaggeration to say Britain’s exit could spark the break-up of the E.U.

The near-miss Austria experienced yesterday in voting in a far right president illustrates how extreme tensions within the European Union have become. Only by all the opposing parties supporting pro-E.U. Green party socialist Alexander Van der Bellen were they able to beat the far-right Freedom party candidate Norbert Hofer from becoming head of state, the margin was a miniscule 31,000 votes out of an electoral return of 4.64 million.

Angry Voters

Dissatisfaction with the E.U., supported by fears of immigration destroying the social fabric and cultural heritage of societies across the continent, has played a major part in not just the U.K.’s referendum but in the rise of both far-right and far-left parties across Europe in recent years.

Anecdotal evidence can be very misleading, dependent as it is on the social mix such opinion is garnered from and the geographic location. Until recently, the decision in the U.K. seemed on something of a knife edge, particularly in the weeks following the announcement by Boris Johnson, London’s charismatic former mayor, that he was actively campaigning for the Leave vote, but in recent days the markets at least have been pricing in a Stay outcome, as evidenced by the strength of sterling.

Investment Sentiment

Indeed, a poll this week showing a late swing by older voters to maintain the status quo resulted in a sharp jump in the value of the pound as this FT graph shows.

Source: Financial Times

Source: Financial Times

Alluring as the Leave campaign’s image of a free and unrestricted future for the UK would be, most are coming to realize such an outcome is unlikely to be achievable. The least-damaging outcome in the months after leaving would be for a quick trade deal with the rest of the E.U. Read more

Jennifer Diggins is the director of Government Affairs at Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor Corp., the largest steelmaker in the U.S. and North America’s largest recycler of any material (Nucor recycled 16.9 million tons of scrap steel in 2015 at its 23 electric arc furnace mills). Diggins serves as the firm’s liaison to Washington, D.C. MetalMiner’s editorial staff recently had a chance to sit down with Jennifer for a MetalMiner Q&A to discuss recent issues in steel, including Chinese overproduction, the tariffs recently passed against some imports and the role of the international scrap market.

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MetalMiner: Recently, executives from the five leading steel companies in the U.S. told the Congressional Steel Caucus that unfair foreign trade practices have caused an increase in steel imports resulting in the loss of more than 13,000 jobs in the industry this year. How was that number arrived at? Could it be even worse than the 13,000 estimated?

jennifer_diggins_headshot_300_Nucor_052116Jennifer Diggins: There is the potential for the number to be much worse when you factor in job losses in industries that support steel.

People often fail to appreciate the broad impact the steel industry has on the rest of the economy. Every one job in the steel industry supports seven other jobs in the economy. These are jobs in businesses that supply steelmakers with raw materials, contractors who do maintenance work at steel mills, truck drivers who transport our products, just to name a few. When steel production decreases like it has, workers in these supporting industries also are impacted. Read more

The scrapping of rare earths export quotas late last year resulted in soaring exports from China which produced 84% of total world rare earths output of 124,000 metric tons, but prices have fallen to multiyear lows in 2016 in response to low demand and oversupply.

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Oxide shipments more than doubled in Q1 2016 at 11,956 mt. March was the second best month on record. That was despite expectations that exports were expected to drop off dramatically this year after December when cargoes hit a record high of nearly 5,000 mt as users built up inventories ahead of the Chinese new year.

Exports Up, Demand Down

Exports of dysprosium surged five-fold while neodymium shipments jumped more than 300%. The Chinese government plans to complete the consolidation of its rare earth industry under six large state-owned firms — Chinalco, Northern Rare Earth, Xiamen Tungsten, China Minmetals, Southern Rare Earth and Guangdong Rare Earth — by the end of June, deputy industry and information technology minister Xin Guobin said.

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Much of the expected consolidation in China was slowed in the first two quarters by the weak market and stimulus at home that has led miners and domestic producers of smartphones and cars to increase production despite demand not moving much at all. If rare earths are to make a comeback in the second half of the year, actual end user demand will have to increase independent of government stimulus.

As we recently reported, the West’s energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency, faces a possible legal split from its parent body, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, following decades of friction and fresh disagreements over cooperation with China.

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A document seen by Reuters shows that the complexity of cooperation between China and Western organizations such as the OECD, which has a stated commitment to democracy and market economies, has created friction between the two organizations.

The IEA, whose role includes coordinated stocks releases to address global oil shortfalls, could leave the Paris-based OECD, which sent a letter to the IEA in April, proposing the split. The argument has everything to do with China and the difference between market economies and China’s planned one.

“The IEA started negotiating with China in 2016 to establish an IEA center in Beijing, without prior consultation with the OECD which, as the IEA was aware, was itself negotiating with China to create a policy center and a country office,” the document said.

Created in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade, the OECD originated from the Organization for European Economic Co-operation, set up in 1948 to help administer the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe with U.S. financial aid.

The IEA was established in 1974 at the proposal of then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to help industrialized nations deal with the oil crisis after the Arab embargo squeezed supplies and sent prices surging.

Since then, energy markets have changed radically. OPEC no longer has the same power and non-IEA China has overtaken the U.S. as the biggest energy user. The fight between the two organizations highlights the difficulty regulators face in attempting to work with China and account for its energy consumption using rules and regulations that were largely designed for market-based economies.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol made strengthening ties with emerging powers the agency’s top priority, choosing China for his first trip into the job and breaking with the practice of previous chiefs, who began their tenure by visiting an IEA country.

The OECD groups 34 of the world’s leading economies and has about 2,500 staff. The IEA has 240 employees and 29 member states, all of which are also OECD members.

Under its autonomous status, the IEA’s governing board consists of energy ministers of member countries, which contribute four fifths of its budget of around $30.74 million (27 million euros) with the rest generated from sales of publications.

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Even if OECD and IEA are able to work out their differences and continue to work together, the problem of trying to recognize China’s massive buying power while also regulating it the way that a market economy would be is one that won’t go away any time soon.

The world may have never encountered a more crucial Year of the Monkey than 2016.

That is, at least as far as global trade between China and the Western world is concerned. At the end of this year, China believes it ought to receive Market Economy Status (MES). This would allow China to enjoy the same market status as the U.S. and European Union when it comes to anti-dumping investigations before the World Trade Organization.

Recently, China’s Ministry of Commerce responded to questions from the Financial Times with this: “China is firmly against any misinterpretation or delay in performance of the [WTO] clause [that “automatically” grants China MES on December 11, 2016]. We call on members, such as the U.S. and E.U., to take necessary measures as soon as possible in order to ensure ending the [current methodology used in anti-dumping cases] before the due time.”

However, since China’s economy — and the role of its government within it — operates differently than much of the rest of the world, that country is effectively able to export and offer its products much more cheaply to many of its trading partners. Depending on the circumstances, this has spurred allegations of “dumping” over the past several decades, and has now come to a head.

Currently, China is considered a ‘non-market economy’ under WTO rules. Achieving market economy status would ultimately put China on the same level as the U.S. and E.U. in the eyes of the WTO, taking what some already consider a global trade war to new heights.

For a more in-depth investigation of the criteria China must fulfill to achieve MES, and what it could mean for its Western trading partners, start here.

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Last week, we briefly covered the decision by European Union lawmakers to vote against the application by China to be considered a market economy, a recognition China says it is due automatically by December following an agreement in 2001 set to mature this year.

We also published an in-depth look at what China market economy status would mean for U.S./E.U relationship with China.

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The European Parliament’s decision was overwhelming, 546 votes in favor and only 28 against, with 77 abstentions so, while the vote is non-binding, it raises the stakes for the European Commission, which will decide shortly whether China deserves to have its status upgraded.

Terrible Timing For Europe

For both sides the debate is at the wrong time. Europe’s steel industry is being decimated by cheap imports from China, raising the stakes for politicians otherwise inclined toward a more free-market approach. The British, in particular, find themselves (not for the first time) somewhat isolated in wanting more open engagement even though their domestic steel industry has been hit harder than most.

Chinese imports are allegedly being dumped in the EU and other foreign markets. Source: Adobe Stock.

Chinese imports are allegedly being dumped in the EU and other foreign markets. Source: iStock.

In reality, the decision is much more political than practical. Market economy status matters when it comes to deciding whether a country is “dumping,” exporting goods at below cost price. Nations deemed to be market economies can resist anti-dumping measures if they can show that domestic prices are no higher than the price at which goods are sold overseas. Read more

US Steel plant in Granite City wide

The U.S. Steel Granite City Works captured by Google Street View in September, 2014 — a year and two months before the latest idling of the mill.

Dan Simmons has seen a lot during the 38 years he’s worked at U.S. Steel’s Granite City Works in Illinois, just outside St. Louis.

From starting out as a general laborer, to swinging hammers on the track gang, to “feeling like Mr. Haney from Green Acres” while trucking around the mill, Simmons took it all in. There were days “you were whistling when you came in, and whistling when you left,” he said.

But nothing compares to what he’s seeing now.

“I have grown men coming into my office, crying,” said Simmons. “You see the pain, the ‘what ifs,’ the blank stares…”

Simmons, who just turned 56, is now the president of the United Steelworkers Local 1899, and some of the grown men coming to him are pipefitters just like he had become during his long tenure, which began in 1978.

However, those men and women aren’t coming to him because they’ve been hurt on the job. They are coming to plead for help, because they have lost their jobs, and in many cases still don’t know when they’ll land their next one.

Cyclicality in steel production is nothing new, but it wasn’t until 2008 — when the global markets began crashing — that USS Granite City Works endured its first indefinite idling in its history.

“We had the unemployment office cycling 400 people through at a time,” Simmons told MetalMiner. “The biggest fear is not knowing. If I could have given them a definitive timeframe, they would’ve said, ‘OK, I can handle that.’ But after two to three months, people come to me and don’t know what to do with themselves.”

And now, after the mill went idle a second time in December 2015, some of those workers have been without a job for nearly half a year. Last December, 1,500 people were laid off — 75% of the mill’s total workforce. Across the country, a total of 13,500 steel workers have been laid off over the past year.

Simmons knows what it’s like to feel that fear firsthand. “I got a brother that works here, a brother-in-law that works here, so it’s personal. You worry about where your whole family will be.”

So what’s different today, compared to 2008?

For Simmons and scores of others in the country’s steel sector and other manufacturing industries, much of the pain can be traced back to one main source: China.

A History of Unfair Trade?

The world may have never encountered a more crucial Year of the Monkey than 2016.

That is, at least as far as global trade between China and the Western world is concerned. At the end of this year, China believes it ought to receive Market Economy Status (MES). This would allow China to enjoy the same market status as the U.S. and European Union when it comes to anti-dumping investigations before the World Trade Organization.

In its quest to grow its economy over the past two decades, China has become the leading producer — by far — of steel, aluminum, cement and other industrial materials. Read more