While US steel producers have reason to celebrate the signing of a trade package that includes Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), other manufacturing organizations will also benefit from the opening up of new markets. However, procurement professionals may perceive the legislation less favorably.
MetalMiner asked Jennifer Diggins, Director of Public Affairs at Nucor, to explain why these trade initiatives are so important for all manufacturers and specifically how the legislation will positively impact metal buyers.
MetalMiner: A lot of your customers purchase imports. How is this legislation helpful to them in any way?
Jennifer Diggins: The legislation is not targeting fairly traded imports. The American steel industry does not have a problem with imports; imports will always be part of our market. But we do have a problem with unfairly traded imports, where governments break trade rules they agreed to and provide illegal subsidies that allow foreign steel producers to sell products below costs.
If a company cheats on price, it raises serious questions about other ways they may be cutting corners to gain an advantage, which could ultimately come back to hurt their customers. We know China has tried to evade duties on some of their steel products by routing them through third-party countries to hide the point of origin and avoid the trade duty.
Steel producers in China have also added chemicals to products to avoid trade duties. Several years ago, China added boron to cut-to-length plate to avoid a duty. Nucor brought that case to the attention of the Department of Commerce who ruled that the boron added did not change the product and was subject to the trade duty.
Behavior like this should raise concerns for any customer. If China is willing to bend the rules like this, can you trust claims of product quality? Do you really know what you are buying? A free, transparent marketplace is best for both producers and consumers.
MM: Arguably the Chinese have done a lousy job curbing excess production and shutting down excess capacity. Do you think this legislation will provide the stimulus necessary for Beijing to finally shutter excess and obsolete production? Why/why not?
JD: The main goal of the legislation is to provide more effective tools to enforce our trade laws to ensure that countries sending products to our market are playing by the rules. The provisions in this legislation should create a disincentive to dump products in our market, but the legislation is not intended to address overcapacity issues in China.
The capacity problem is a much larger issue and won’t be meaningfully addressed until China gets serious about moving away from being a state-run economy to a market-based economy. Unfortunately, there are few signs they are serious about doing this. Earlier this year, China issued a draft of its Steel Industry Adjustment Policy, saying – as it has for years now – that this new policy will resolve its excess capacity problems.
The major steel industry associations from North America, Latin America and Europe issued a joint response, expressing their disappointment that the Policy still shows that China insists on a top-down, state-controlled approach to the steel market. We are all in agreement that the Policy actually is less interested in eliminating excess capacity in China, but instead would seek to transfer capacity overseas through government-supported foreign investments and acquisitions.
It’s clear that China has no interest in letting market forces dictate the size of its steel industry. And so long as China maintains this state-supported approach to market competition, it’s hard to see how they can have a place in any free market economy. This legislation is an important step, and should help any company from any nation that fairly competes in the American marketplace.
But so long as China can be successful dumping steel in other foreign markets, it is unlikely the Chinese government will get out of the steel business. We need more concerted action from our trading partners to force China to comply with WTO rules.
MM: Why, in general, is excess capacity (steel production capacity) a bad thing for steel buying organizations? Most might say it’s a good thing because buyers can get lower prices. How do chronically low prices harm the industry and eventually your customers?
JD: I think it’s important to note here that we are talking about artificially low prices – not competitively low prices. In a free market economy, overcapacity would be eliminated through the balancing of supply with demand. So in a situation of excess production, customers would buy steel from the companies that best meet their needs, and the other steel companies would go out of business. This kind of competition drives quality up and prices down. In a truly free market, efficient producers survive while inefficient ones go out of business.
However, the global steel market is not a true free market. Chinese steel companies are being artificially sustained by their government, creating the risk that efficient foreign steel companies will go out of business while inefficient Chinese companies survive. With state support, they can produce an overabundance of steel at absurdly low prices, and drive their competition out of the marketplace. The market will not be well served if inefficient steel producers survive at the expense of efficient ones.
At some point, customers will have no choice but to buy product from those steel companies. There will be no diversity in the market place – no competition. Just one source of state-owned suppliers. And they won’t be accountable to their customers for their success. The only entity they will have to keep happy is their government’s bureaucracy. In that scenario, you can bet the absurdly low prices will disappear with no guarantee that customers will be getting a quality product.
China’s real goal is not only to dominate global steel production, but also to transfer the global downstream supply chain to China (in order to maximize job creation in China). To ensure the reliability and survival of the supply chain in the United States, including both suppliers and downstream consumers, we need to ensure that global supply chains are free from market distortions.
Disclaimer: Nucor is a sponsor of MetalMiner.