The Trump administration’s Section 232 investigations have been getting all the headlines — but let’s not forget about Section 332.
Earlier this month, the House Ways and Means Committee released the United States International Trade Commission’s (USITC) Section 332 investigation into the competitive factors affecting the U.S. aluminum industry. (A Section 332 entails a fact-finding investigation “on any matter involving tariffs or international trade, including conditions of competition between U.S. and foreign industries.”)
The lengthy report, which checks in at just over 600 pages, details the major competitive forces at play in the global aluminum market and how those forces impact the U.S. aluminum industry. Unlike its Section 232 counterpart, the 332 report — which focuses on 2011-2015 — predates the Trump administration. The Ways and Means Committee requested the report from the USITC in February 2016.
The report offers a sweeping, macroscopic view of the U.S. aluminum industry and the global picture, too. Like the Department of Commerce’s 232 probe, China figured prominently in the findings of the USITC survey.
Among the key points in the report is China’s role as the principal driver of the aluminum market during the time frame assessed (2011-2015). During that time, China’s production skyrocketed, so much so that it became the world’s largest aluminum producer and consumer, and ranked second behind the U.S. in secondary unwrought production.
Aluminum associations from the U.S., Canada and the European Union praised the USITC report. In a joint release Monday, the Aluminum Association of the United States, the Aluminium Association of Canada and European Aluminium all praised the report for touching on the industry’s biggest buzzword today: oversupply.
“The study details the government-sponsored rise of Chinese aluminum production in the global market and the effect of Chinese oversupply on global prices, which fell roughly 30 percent during 2011–15,” the joint release said. “Chinese government intervention in the form of programs and subsidized loans for electricity has played a significant role in China’s aluminum expansion.”
The release also reiterated the associations’ desire to work with the Chinese government to reach a “negotiated agreement” that would “result in measurable and consequent reductions in Chinese aluminum capacity and/or growth.”
Among other findings, the USITC report noted government intervention is high worldwide (and not just from China).
The study also found the chief determinant of competitiveness for primary aluminum producers to be electricity costs, while for secondary and wrought producers the determinants were reliable scrap supplies and proximity to end markets.
Unsurprisingly, however, the study also found that China proved to be the exception to the aforementioned expectations for competitiveness.
“Despite having a fairly new aluminum industry, relatively high electricity costs in many regions, and a less developed consumer economy than many other countries where the industry is important, China is the world’s leading aluminum producer,” the report states.
While the aluminum associations of the U.S., Canada and Europe submitted a joint statement in support of the report’s findings, the U.S. industry might have more at stake than anyone. Per the report, “U.S. primary production capacity shrank more than in any other large producing country.”
“A combination of factors, including relatively high electricity rates; limited investments in new technologies; and currency appreciation have all contributed to the United States’ loss of competitiveness in this segment in recent years,” the report goes on to state.
As such, it’s not surprising that the U.S. aluminum industry is looking to the Department of Commerce’s Section 232 investigation for relief. U.S. aluminum smelters dropped in number from 23 to five in the last two decades. Some good news did come out recently when Alcoa announced July 11 that it would be partially reopening an aluminum smelter near Evansville, Ind.
With a delay in the announcement of the Section 232 steel investigation, however, the 232 aluminum announcement will likely be pushed down the road, as well.
The Aluminum Association CEO and President Heidi Brock was clear in a letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross regarding requests to exclude certain Chinese products from any hypothetical 232 trade remedies.
“… we respectfully request that the Commerce Department recommend actions to the President under Section 232 to address China’s massive and growing overcapacity, without allowing for broad exclusions (with the exception of aluminum powder, as addressed previously by the Aluminum Association), and while protecting existing trading relationships with Canada and Europe,” Brock wrote in the letter dated July 18.
The letter came in response to a request from the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), which asked Ross to exclude aluminum can sheets and aluminum ingot — used for beverage cans — from tariffs or other trade protections that could result from 232.
It might be a while before the Section 232 aluminum probe comes to a conclusion and policy recommendations are drafted. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch the dynamic between primary and downstream producers, who approach this debate with very different business needs. Similarly, the CMI request is just one of its kind — there will surely be others. How will the administration deal with these requests? Will it allow industry sub-groups, like the beverage lobby, to carve out exceptions?
Or, will the hypothetical trade response include a blanket measure against all Chinese products, regardless of type?
That remains to be seen. What is still certain, however, is that many in the U.S. aluminum industry are looking for help from Section 232.
Whether they’ll get it also remains to be seen.