Commentary

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Editor’s Note: MetalMiner has recently partnered with Raistone Capital to help manufacturing organizations claim and quickly obtain access to cash refunds for Section 301 tariffs paid on products that are on the exclusion list. Tariff refunds help buying organizations add actual dollars to their bottom line. 

Tariff exclusions are published in the Federal Register (there is also a search portal). You can also search through the lists with your HTS code: 

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This morning in metals news, the U.S. plans to appeal a World Trade Organization (WTO) compliance panel ruling related to its steel dispute with India, China’s crude steel production again hit a record high in 2019 and General Motors announced plans to invest $40 million at its Spring Hill Global Propulsion Systems plant in Tennessee.

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U.S. will appeal WTO compliance panel ruling

In its ongoing dispute with India over its tariffs on Indian hot-rolled carbon steel, the U.S. plans to appeal a WTO compliance panel ruling.

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The successor to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, dubbed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), has now made its way through both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

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In December, the White House and House Democrats reached a deal over revisions to the USMCA, yielding an overwhelmingly bipartisan 385-41 vote Dec. 19 that sent the deal over to the Senate.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 89-10 to approve the USMCA via the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement Implementation Act. Sen. Pat Toomey was the only dissenting Republican vote.

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Steel companies and mining companies in India have heaved a sigh of relief after the federal government amended the prevailing mining law to permit the “seamless transfer” of regulatory approvals to new owners of operational iron ore mines, the Economic Times reported.

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Earlier the week, the government amended the Mines & Minerals (Development & Regulation) Act to ensure smooth transfer of ownership.

The lease of 334 non-captive mineral mines will expire March 31 this year. Of these, 46 mines are operational, 26 of which are iron ore mines.

When the lease expires, all will go on the auction list as per the mining law. However, for some time now there have been apprehensions that the auction round would not be concluded as scheduled.

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The escalation in U.S.-China trade relations appeared to take a brief pause Wednesday when U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He signed what has been billed as a “Phase One” trade agreement between the world’s two largest economies.

“Today we take a momentous step, one that has never been taken before with China, toward a future of fair and reciprocal trade as we sign Phase One of the historic trade deal between the United States and China,” Trump said in opening remarks during the signing ceremony Wednesday, adding the deal would begin to “right the wrongs of the past.”

Keep up to date on everything going on in the world of trade and tariffs via MetalMiner’s Trade Resource Center.

Over the past two years, following the launch of a Section 301 investigation in August 2017, the U.S. has imposed a total of approximately $370 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, with China responding with tariffs of its own at each step of the way amounting to $110 billion.

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The inverse relationship between the strength of the U.S. dollar and the price of commodities has held good over time.

That relationship isn’t a constant, of course. Political, economic or supply-demand fundamentals can trump dollar strength at times of stress. However, as a broad measure, it can impact prices day to day, week to week and year to year.

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While stock prices are currently at all-time highs, commodity prices are as cheap today as they pretty much have been for decades — not historic lows, but relatively speaking commodities have not enjoyed the same boost from cheap money and asset-boosting policies like quantitative easing that stock prices have seen.

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Environmental damage caused by mining and refining processes like smelting are not uncommon.

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In the last two years alone, one site lists 10 major tailings dam failures alone; environmental damage from tailing ponds is only the thin end of the wedge when it comes to the wider remit of potential environmental consequences arising from mineral extraction.

Yet not one of those events listed was in China, despite half the world’s metals being refined and produced there, and a sizable proportion of the world’s mines being in China.

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The assassination of Iranian top military official Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport last week caused a near 4% surge in oil prices and a drop in share prices as investors took fright at the prospect of an all-out war between the U.S. and Iran. Not long after, however, oil prices retreated over 4% to below $60 per barrel Wednesday morning after President Donald Trump said Iran appeared to be “standing down.”

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In reality, while that remains a possibility, a more likely outcome is an ongoing lower-level exchange of tit-for-tats as evidenced by Iran’s attack overnight earlier this week on two airbases housing U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.

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2020 will — economically, anyway — be shaped in no small part by what happens in China.

The world’s second-largest economy has been on a slide in terms of GDP growth for years now. The 18-month trade war with the U.S. has contributed to that decline and has been the cause of considerable investor anxiety.

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As if the downturn due to a trade-war-induced slowdown in China were not enough, the European automotive industry is facing the challenge of a rapid switch from diesel to petrol engines that has been gathering pace for the last two years. At the same time, the industry has also had to deal with the implementation of new legislation designed to reduce car makers’ overall fleet emission levels.

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An article in the Financial Times explains the impact of the new legislation on Europe’s automakers, an industry that supports some 14 million workers across the continent.

Quoting Max Warburton, an auto analyst at Bernstein, the article says each carmaker faces its own CO2 target based on the weight of its vehicles. A business selling smaller cars, such as PSA, therefore has a lower CO2 target than a company with a heavier average vehicle, such as Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler.

The targets for each company vary from around 91 g/km to just over 100 g/km. Some carmakers, like PSA, have already made good progress, switching less fuel-efficient, four-cylinder GM engines in their new Astra range to new three-cylinder PSA engines has improved efficiency by some 21%.

However, carmakers like PSA do not have a lot of luxury saloons and SUVs in their lineup. Daimler, BMW and JLR do, and the situation is made worse by a rise in sales of such vehicles in recent years.

Europe — once the home of the small, fuel-efficient compact — has fallen in love with the SUV.  Some 40% of cars sold in the E.U. are now SUVs and automotive carbon emissions have, as a result, risen for the first time in a decade.

Potential fines for missing these new fleet emission limits are punishing, the FT states. Every gram over the target incurs a penalty of €95 — multiplied by the number of cars sold by the carmaker, the costs could be crippling. “It’s just stunning how much is going to have to be achieved in the next 18 to 24 months,” Warburton is quoted as saying.

If the industry sold exactly the same mix of vehicles in 2021 as it did last year, carmakers together would face penalties of €25 billion, the Financial Times reports.

This comes on the back of 17 months of slowing car sales in China, Germany’s biggest auto export market, and the losses being sustained on the sale of every electric vehicle (EV) sold, such as they are. EV sales in Europe have stalled without heavy subsidies: the buying public is, well, not buying.

Relatively higher prices and range anxiety, exacerbated by inadequate charging infrastructure and long charging times, are putting off buyers despite boosters suggesting the EV market is on the cusp of take-off.

European carmakers are already reining back sales of luxury gas guzzlers like Mercedes AMG range in order to help meet the new targets, but those are by far the most profitable part of their range — putting overall company profitability under pressure.

Job losses, even in highly protected job markets like Germany where an axed position is estimated to cost the employer around €100,000, are likely over the next 2-3 years. A separate Financial Times article states in the next decade almost a quarter of a million auto jobs will be lost in the country, quoting Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, the director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

The article goes on to report German automakers and part suppliers, from Daimler and Audi to suppliers including Continental and Bosch, have already announced around 50,000 jobs will be lost or are at risk so far this year, as their traditional businesses become less profitable. This comes at a time of potentially crippling investment demands in the switch to EV production and development of the supply chain such as battery plants.

The Financial Times estimates the German car industry alone, which directly employs 830,000 people and supports a further 2 million in the wider economy, will be forced to plow some €40 billion into battery-powered technologies over the next three years. Job losses so far have been limited by automakers’ relative healthy profits this decade.

From 2020 onwards, however, the situation is set to deteriorate as overall profitability suffers. “No one will survive in the form they exist today,” Ralf Kalmbach of consultancy Bain & Co, who has spent 32 years advising German carmakers, is quoted as predicting.

The E.U. is making some concessions to limit the damage. Carmakers will be measured on only 95% of their fleet in 2020, giving them a little breathing space to continue selling their most-polluting — and often most-profitable — vehicles longer.

But unlike the U.S., European firms cannot buy and sell credits, they can only pool overall fleet results with competitors, which naturally carries a cost.

Keep up to date on everything going on in the world of trade and tariffs via MetalMiner’s Trade Resource Center.

Ultimately, legislators and the industry will have to find solutions to redress the imbalance between what consumers want to buy and what manufacturers want to sell them. That will require a combination of penalties, incentives, investment and rapid technological innovation – a challenging and heady combination of demands to be met in the first half of the coming decade.

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