Tag: antidumping

Antidumping 101: Everything You Need to Know about the Steel Industry’s Favorite Protectionist Bludgeon

Last week, invoking a seldom-used provision of a 1962 law, President Trump launched an investigation to determine whether steel imports present a threat to U.S. national security. An affirmative finding by the Commerce Department would permit the president to impose trade restrictions in response to the threat. But the real threat to U.S. national security is not an abundant supply of cheap imported steel. The real threat is a hyper-litigious steel industry intent on isolating the U.S. economy at enormous cost to downstream U.S. industries, exporters, and consumers. 

With the Trump administration full of steel executives and their lawyers one needn’t ponder too long to get the gist: U.S. trade policy is in the hands of an industry that accounts for 0.3 percent of U.S. GDP, has never had much interest in cultivating foreign demand for its products, has limited stakes in the global trading system, and is monothematic in its demand for aggressive trade law enforcement.

The wall of tariff’s protecting U.S. steel interests is already much higher than the walls erected to insulate virtually any other industry from foreign competition. Currently, there are 151 antidumping and countervailing duty (anti-subsidy) measures in force against most types of steel from most major exporters. And that severely impairs the competitiveness of America’s far more numerous, far more economically significant downstream, steel-using companies.

Under U.S. trade remedy laws, the authorities are prohibited by statute (on account of steel industry lobbying) from even considering the impact of prospective antidumping and countervailing duties on the operations of downstream companies. Absurd self-flagellation, right? The absurdity is magnified when you grasp that the duties paid by U.S. importers (i.e., the steel users), which are big enough deterrents to doing business with foreign suppliers in the first place, aren’t even the biggest concern. Under the seriously corrupted, capriciously-administered U.S. trade remedy laws, the importers don’t even know what their final duty liability is going to be until about one year (on average) after the product is imported.  The amount of duty paid upon entry of the product is an estimate of the duties that ultimately will be owed when Commerce gets around to “calculating” the actual incidence of dumping or subsidization next year.  Imagine getting a supplemental bill today for the groceries you purchased last April.  Would you even buy those groceries in the first place, without knowing the final price tag? Of course not. And that’s the intention of the retrospective nature of the U.S. trade remedy laws.

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The WTO Does Not Usurp U.S. Sovereignty

With steel industry lawyers and executives populating key trade policy positions in the Trump administration, we are witnessing the return of an old, rusty narrative that portrays the World Trade Organization as unaccountable global government intent on running roughshod over U.S. sovereignty.  On the Forbes website, today, I explain why that is a protectionist canard.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

John Bolton took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal yesterday to assert America’s interest in abandoning international institutions that threaten U.S. sovereignty. In identifying the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Body as such an institution, Bolton was reinforcing a central theme of the Trump administration’s recently-minted 2017 Trade Policy Agenda. That document is short on specifics, but makes one thing clear: Under threat of going rogue, the United States will leverage its indispensability to compel changes at the WTO that accommodate a more expansive, less surgical application of domestic trade laws.

“Defending our national sovereignty over trade policy” and “strictly enforcing U.S. trade laws” are, explicitly, the top two priorities on the agenda. Taken together, those priorities suggest the Trump administration will aggressively execute U.S. trade laws with little regard for whether that execution violates internationally-agreed rules established to prevent and discourage abuse of such laws. Agreeing that “all animals are equal,” then adding the famous caveat “but some are more equal than others” is what is meant by “defending our national sovereignty.”

Given the prominence of domestic steel industry representation in the Trump administration, these priorities aren’t surprising. High on the list of talking points of the Washington-swamp-savvy U.S. steel lobby is the assertion that the WTO’s DSB, by finding U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty practices in violation of WTO obligations on numerous occasions over the years, usurps U.S. sovereignty over its own laws. This is a complaint frequently made by Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s USTR-designate, who for decades has represented domestic steel interests in AD/CVD cases before U.S. agencies.

And here are the concluding paragraphs:

The prominence of the claim that U.S. sovereignty is threatened reflects the over-representation of steel interests in the Trump administration. It is intended to add credibility to the implied threat that the United States will ignore DSB rulings with which it disagrees unless and until there are changes made to the WTO texts that render compliant the United States’ non-compliant actions on trade remedies.  But it is irresponsible to risk blowing up the system, especially on behalf of an industry that accounts for less than 0.3 percent of the U.S. economy.

The bottom line is that the WTO dispute settlement system, though not perfect, offers a reasonable formula for balancing the simultaneous imperatives of preserving the rule of international trade law and national sovereignty.

But there are many paragraphs in between that I hope you will find time to read here.

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Carrier Revisited

President-elect Donald Trump has claimed victory in his effort to preserve employment for Carrier workers in Indiana.  Assisted by $7 million in tax incentives provided by the State of Indiana, Mr. Trump persuaded the company not to move 800 furnace manufacturing jobs to Monterrey, Mexico.  This works out to a taxpayer-funded subsidy of $8750 per job. 

Another 1300 Carrier jobs still will move to Mexico between now and 2019.  Published reports have indicated that the company anticipated cost savings of some $65 million per year from moving all 2100 positions to Monterrey.  So Carrier is taking at least a partial step toward maintaining its global competiveness, while at least partially appeasing the incoming president.

I wrote an op-ed in Forbes on August 22, 2016, in which I argued that Carrier no doubt had quite good business reasons for planning the move to Mexico.  Carrier’s February 2016 announcement of the decision said that it was due to “ongoing cost and pricing pressures driven, in part, by new regulatory requirements.”  

Carrier has been manufacturing products in Monterrey for some years.  The company certainly has a clear understanding of why moving production of some air conditioning units makes business sense.  It would not be wise for them to explain their reasoning in public because such proprietary knowledge would be of great interest to their competitors. 

Some commentators have opined that the decision was driven largely by lower labor costs.  Carrier’s expenses for employee salary and benefits average about $34 per hour in Indiana, while those costs in Mexico are only around $6 per hour.  It’s possible the move was prompted primarily by labor cost savings, although my analysis of data compiled by The Conference Board suggests otherwise.  The value generated by an hour worked in the United States has risen by 40 percent over the past 22 years of NAFTA.  In Mexico, the gain has been only 10.5 percent.  Productivity has grown faster in the United States, so the incentive to shift production to Mexico today ought to be weaker than it was 10 or 20 years ago.  (Note:  Those figures apply to the productivity of all workers.  If it was possible to analyze just the manufacturing sector, perhaps the findings would change.)

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Tilting at Sawmills: Extortion and Lawlessness Prominent in U.S. Approach to Canadian Lumber

Donald Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement the “worst trade deal ever negotiated.” If he were speaking on behalf of Canadian exporters or American consumers of softwood lumber, his point would have some validity. For more than 20 years, NAFTA has failed to deliver free trade in lumber. Instead, a system of managed trade has persisted at the behest of rent-seeking U.S. producers, egged on by Washington lawyers and lobbyists who know a gravy train when they see one.

Those who consider the United States a beacon of free trade in a swirling sea of protectionist scofflaws will be surprised by the sordid details of the decades-long lumber dispute between the United States and Canada. Among those details is the story of how the U.S. Commerce Department (DOC) ran roughshod over the rule of law to manufacture the leverage needed to extort from Canadian lumber mills a sum of $1 billion, which was used to line the pockets of American mills and the U.S. Forestry Service, while restricting lumber imports for nearly a decade through October 2015, at great expense to retailers, builders, and home buyers.

With that ugly history mostly expunged from the public’s memory, the U.S. lumber industry is back at the trough again, demanding its government intervene to restrict Canadian supply, following a whole 13 month period during which it was forced out of the nest to operate in an environment rife with real market conditions! In the quiet shadows of the Friday after Thanksgiving, U.S. softwood lumber producers filed new antidumping and countervailing duty petitions with the DOC and U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), alleging that dumped and subsidized Canadian imports were causing material injury to the domestic industry.

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Secretary Pritzker Forgets About Steel Users

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker authored an Aug. 12, 2016, opinion piece in the on-line version of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that emphasizes her desire to protect the steel industry from import competition. She states, “We take seriously our ongoing responsibility to combat unfair trade that threatens the viability of this industry and the good people in our steel-making communities.” Pritzker notes that at the Department of Commerce, “Currently, we are enforcing 161 anti-dumping (AD) and countervailing duty (CVD) cases on steel products to combat the countries, like China, that are trying to dump steel on our market.”

There is no doubt that steel producers are being affected by global steel overcapacity, as I have noted here, here, and here. Much of the overcapacity is due to China’s use of various policy measures to stimulate steel industry expansion. In 1995, China produced 95 million metric tons (MMT) of steel, equal to the amount produced in the United States. Twenty years later in 2015, Chinese production had risen more than eight-fold to 803 MMT. U.S. production decreased 17 percent over that same period, amounting to 79 MMT in 2015. Global production more than doubled, rising from 753 MMT in 1995 to over 1600 MMT today. The boost in China’s output exceeded 700 MMT and accounted for more than 80 percent of the increase for the entire world. It is reasonable to conclude that China’s actions have been the most important factor in glutting the global steel market.

A world marketplace so strongly influenced by government policies can hardly be described as fair. The effects of the steel surplus are felt around the globe, including in the United States. U.S. steel producers have been dealing with relatively low-priced imports from a number of countries. They have responded by filing many AD/CVD petitions, which helps to explain Sec. Pritzker’s statement about her role in “enforcing 161 AD/CVD cases.” Those measures restrict the importation of a variety of steel products from numerous countries. They have succeeded in making the United States a somewhat high-priced island in a world awash with low-priced steel. The AD/CVD restrictions apparently haven’t been sufficient, though, to ensure the profitability of American steel producers. United States Steel Corporation reported a loss of $1.5 billion in 2015.

However, what Sec. Pritzker ignores is that efforts to restrict imports to the benefit of steel producers come at the expense of steel users. U.S. manufacturing firms that use steel as an input have to pay prices that are higher than those paid by competitors located in other countries. This makes steel-consuming manufacturers vulnerable to losing sales to lower-priced imported goods that compete with them in the U.S. marketplace. Economists long have understood that imposing trade restrictions lowers the economic welfare of the country that puts them in place. Since the steel-consuming sector is so much larger than the steel-producing sector, the welfare losses for the overall U.S. economy are magnified.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) is part of Sec. Pritzker’s Department of Commerce. BEA data indicate that value added by “primary metal manufacturing” amounted to $59.7 billion in 2014. (Note: Primary metal manufacturing [NAICS 331] includes nonferrous metals, such as copper, aluminum, magnesium, lead, tin, silver, and gold, so is much broader than the steel industry.)  Downstream manufacturers that utilize steel as an input generate value added of $990 billion, more than 16 times larger than primary metal industries. The disparity in employment also is more than 16 times greater. Primary metal manufacturing employed 400,000 people in 2014. Downstream manufacturers employed 6.5 million. Employment by U.S. steel producers is somewhere in the range of 100,000 – 150,000.

The point is not that the U.S. steel industry is small and insignificant, because clearly it is not. Rather, the point is that the problems of the steel industry need to be kept in perspective. The bottom line is that it would be a poor policy choice to attempt to protect steel producers in ways that do much greater harm to steel users. Those who wish to provide policy support for the steel industry should look for approaches that do not involve restricting trade.

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Financial Times Offers Wrong Response to China’s Steel Overcapacity

The Financial Times (FT) published a June 9, 2016, editorial titled, “Coping with a world of too much Chinese steel.”  (Link)  The editorial makes the case correctly that China’s steel overcapacity has spilled onto world markets and is having negative effects on steel makers in the European Union and United States.  It appropriately argues against Western governments nationalizing their steel industries or providing “other indefinite state support.” 

The editorial errs, however, in suggesting that “the best option is a judicious and limited use of trade remedies against subsidized imports.”  Economists have understood for decades that when a nation imposes trade restrictions, it always reduces its own economic welfare.  It is difficult to argue that imposing a policy measure that reduces a nation’s economic welfare is a good thing to do.  The country would have been better off simply by doing nothing.  (“Don’t do something, just stand there!”)

There are two easily understood reasons why imposing trade restrictions won’t help the situation.  The first is that the global overcapacity is so great that market prices for commodity grades of steel are low worldwide.  If imports of hot-rolled steel from China are limited by newly implemented antidumping or countervailing duty (AD/CVD) measures, relatively low-priced hot-rolled coil could easily be imported instead from countries such as South Korea, Brazil, or Turkey.  Curtailing imports from China is likely to provide relatively little relief to domestic steel manufacturers. 

The second reason is that restricting imports in an attempt to benefit steel producers will have the effect of increasing costs of production for manufacturers that use steel as an input.  These downstream users constitute a much larger segment of the economy.  In the United States, for example, data compiled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) at the Department of Commerce indicate that economic value added by “primary metal manufacturing,” which includes steel, copper, aluminum, magnesium, etc., amounted to about $60 billion in 2014.  Downstream manufacturers that utilize steel as an input generated value added of $990 billion, more than 16 times larger.  Employment by primary metal manufacturers was 400,000, while downstream manufacturers employed 6.5 million, also 16 times greater.  Use of trade remedies against steel imports amounts to an attempt to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

To elaborate, the United States currently imposes some 150 AD or CVD orders against a large number of steel products from a large number of countries.  These restrictions have had the effect of making U.S. steel prices relatively high, while in the rest of the world they are relatively low.  Still, important portions of the American steel industry have not been sufficiently profitable.  United States Steel Corporation, the country’s largest producer, reported a 2015 loss of $1.5 billion.  So U.S. prices are somewhat high, but not high enough to cure the industry’s commercial problems.

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“Leveling the Playing Field Act” Hurts the Broader Economy

The Senate leadership is working hard to find the votes needed to support the trade agenda. Key to progress is passage of trade promotion authority (TPA), also known as “fast track”, which would commit Congress to vote up or down on a trade agreement rather than offering amendments. Opposition to trade liberalization has been a comfortable policy stance for senators beholden to organized labor and to the anti-growth left. Opponents on the right profess concern about the possible loss of national sovereignty and generally are reluctant to give President Obama greater authority of any kind.

Political realities sometimes require offering sweeteners to make a difficult vote more palatable. Trade adjustment assistance (TAA) has been legislated in the past to help workers and firms that are having difficulty dealing with competition from imports. Even though the economic and equity arguments in favor of trade-related unemployment benefits are relatively weak (Why treat people who are unemployed due to international competition differently than those who lose their jobs due to changes in technology, for instance?), the political rationale for TAA at times has been compelling. It’s not surprising that both the House and Senate have been searching for a way to pass both TPA and TAA. The president has expressed his preference to sign them at the same time.

With the outcome of the Senate vote on TPA not yet clear, it’s not surprising that there has been a search for additional sweeteners. The steel industry has pushed to include Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-OH) poorly named “Leveling the Playing Field Act” as part of the TAA package.  (My op-ed on the Act is available here.) Given the need to woo as many votes as possible, the Senate leadership has agreed to this request.

It’s not my intention to criticize pro-trade senators who are doing their best to pass TPA. Life can be complex, and political life all the more so. However, it may be worthwhile for free-trade proponents to think carefully about the implications of adding Sen. Brown’s measure as part of this effort to provide the president with negotiating authority.

Here’s the rub: the protectionist provisions of the “Leveling the Playing Field Act” would take effect as soon as the president signs the TAA legislation, but potential trade liberalization (if any ever gets enacted) would not be realized until sometime well in the future. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – the first agreement that might be concluded once the president has negotiating authority – would not begin to be implemented until 2017 at the earliest, perhaps much later. Although details of the agreement are not yet public, restrictions on politically sensitive imports are likely to be phased in over perhaps as many as 20 years. Thus, the United States would be making its antidumping/countervailing (AD/CVD) regime more protectionist immediately in exchange for future liberalization that may or may not ever occur.

If possible, Senate leaders should remove the Leveling the Playing Field Act from TAA and let adjustment assistance be considered on its own merits. If that isn’t feasible, the effective date of Sen. Brown’s legislation should be changed so that it does not become operational until the eventual implementing legislation for TPP also becomes effective. That way there will at least be some growth-promoting liberalization to help offset the reduced economic welfare caused by the Leveling the Playing Field Act.

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