Global trade in steel appears to be facing a Trumpophobia in the current year and if some of the forecasts by the trade experts are to come true, it may even last for the next few years as well. In the pre 8th March period of this year, global trade was swamped by a series of WTO prescribed AD and CVD cases in steel. China was the main target of most of these cases, numbering approximately 39 of them imposed by the US, the EU, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Taiwan, India and Pakistan.
All these countries have been imposed AD/CVD by other countries as well. In a word, global trade was no longer fair and free and cut throat competition bordering on fraudulent, non-transparent activities made it shrunk in size and the trend was clearly visible for the last 6 years. WSA data indicate that global exports on an average comprising of less than 30% share of production has grown by only an average 2.6% per annum from 396.4 million tonne in 2012 to 451.7 million tonne in 2017. As multilateral free and fair trade was getting restricted (not duty free, but with duties within the bound rates) the phenomenon of bilateral free trade agreements besieged the show.
A number of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) agreements got signed. As regards India, RCEP with Japan and South Korea with progressively reducing duties led to massive rise in imports, depriving the domestic producers a higher share of the rising market and led to unprecedented import penetration growth. It was followed by dumping steel into India by China, CIS and other countries and the Indian government supported the industry with a spate of trade measures that were made operational with remarkable speed. That was a different story altogether.
But it left a message that despite the existence of WTO and its rule and procedure-bound trade measures always being available to protect the countries from the unfair trade practices, there existed a plethora of loopholes that could vitiate the free trade atmosphere eulogised by the trade treaties. In addition, these bilateral trade agreements are quite capable of imposing grievous injuries to the domestic economies of many hapless countries who have either not interpreted the clauses adequately before being a party to them nor been blessed with the wherewithal of adopting WTO prescribed trade measures appropriately.
The background mentioned by President Trump for imposing 25% and 10% tariff duties on steel and aluminium in March 2018 in terms of low productivity, profitability, capacity utilisation, loss of market share, job losses, among others, suffered by US industry sounded similar when Indian government imposed AD, CVD and safeguard duties (on HRC, CRC) on Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and Ukraine in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Only difference between WTO approved trade measures and the latest US announcement is that no detailed investigation was to be conducted to establish injury to domestic US mills other than a report prepared by Purdue University to show that tariff imposition of 25% and 10% on steel and aluminium would enable the US to achieve 80% capacity utilisation (from the current 74%) that would eliminate nearly all the internal injuries in the economy and take the US to a higher level of economic growth.
It is seen that total steel imports to the US which was of the order of 25.9 million tonne in 2011 (29% of total steel consumption) rose to 34.5 million tonne in 2017 (35.3% of total steel consumption). The total CAD of the US at $466.2 billion is (-)2.8% of GDP in fourth quarter of 2017. With China it is the rising trade deficit that was the major bone of contention.
Presently the EU, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Russia, Brazil, South Korea, China and India comprising of 80% of total steel imports by the US are planning or have already announced retaliatory tariff measures encompassing the total export basket (all commodities including steel and aluminium). This is unique as for the first time, trade disputes in steel and aluminium have transcended the limited domain of these two commodities and engulfed all other commodities. Already domestic steel prices in the US have risen significantly as current HRC domestic prices in the US at $991/tonne ex-works may be compared with HRC domestic prices at $663/tonne in North Europe and domestic prices of $675/tonne in Japan.
The record rise in prices may be considered as a direct benefit to US producers on account of S-232 impost. But the gain is steel prices leading to more job creation is far outwitted by the job losses experienced in many other import dependent commodity businesses in the US suffering from high import prices. Thus the US action has shaken the general faith in the multilateral trading system advocated so steadfastly by WTO since the last 23 years.
Even the bilateral or tripartite trade agreements like that amongst the Nafta partners of the US, Mexico and Canada could not exclude these countries from the additional tariff imposition. The US has also come out of Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). The agencies and the institutions that owed their origin to globalisation, are to revalidate their existence from the majority of their stakeholders. The uncertain global trade in steel in the coming years is capable of putting a blot on the upward graph of the steel industry.
The author is DG, Institute of Steel Growth and Development. Views expressed are personal.