Chinese Steel Industry: How Did the World’s Largest Steel Producer Protect Itself from Global Slowdown and a Trade War?

The US-China trade war and rising environmental concerns have led to a slowdown in global infrastructural projects in 2018. The objective of this short piece is to understand the impact of these global phenomena on the Chinese steel industry.

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Vidushi R Singh, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

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How Did the World’s Largest Steel Producer Protect Itself from Global Slowdown and a Trade War?

China has been the world leader in steel production since 2008, with about half of the total world steel exports originating in China. The US-China trade war and rising environmental concerns have led to a slowdown in global infrastructural projects in 2018. The objective of this short piece is to understand the impact of these global phenomena on the Chinese steel industry.

Economic logic follows that excess supply and reduced demand, as have been observed in recent times, would lead to falling prices. The inelasticity of supply should have meant low prices for the Chinese steel market. As can be observed in the following graph, prices dipped following the first steel tariff announcement from the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) office on 1 March 2018. However, while prices did fall, they also rebounded much sooner than initially predicted. This trend can also be observed in the graph, with prices rising back up April 2018 onwards. However, the prices crashed again in November 2018, due to falling demand in downstream sectors, such as infrastructure and manufacturing industries, as a speculative response to rising tariffs between the US and China. Chinese steel manufacturers also registered losses for the first time in the last three years, in November 2018. Despite this, the Chinese steel economy remained largely immune to economic shocks.

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Source: Trading Economics

The Chinese conduit to coming out unscathed lies in the supply side reforms, initiated by the government in 2015. The end of the Chinese construction boom in 2014 had instigated the government to carry out reforms to cut down on steel production. As the growth rate of the construction industry fell from 10% in 2014 to just 2% in 2015, steel production was reigned in, with the growth rate actually falling to a negative value in 2015 (National Bureau of Statistics of China). The government decided to intervene at this point so as to ensure the survival of the steel industry and avoid mass layoffs that would have resulted from a slowdown in the industry. The goal decided in 2015 was to reduce capacity by 45 million tonnes, a target that was attained by the latter half of 2017, much before the set deadline of 2020.

Thus, when the demand growth rate fell, the Chinese steel industry had already moved on to capacity optimization and did not face grave overutilization. This allowed for the industry to shift supply rapidly, and safeguard itself from future tariffs as well. This success of the Chinese steel industry is evident in the fact that since 1 January 2019, Chinese steel prices have increased consistently. The shift from high-grade iron ore to lower grades has also allowed manufacturers to increase margins by cutting costs.

One interesting factor in this situation is the ability of the Chinese steel manufacturers to divert inventory to Chinese infrastructural projects under the ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative and the Belt and Road initiative. While it is hard to ascertain the exact amount of steel inventory being fed into these initiatives, they do provide the steel industry with a reliable sink to use up inventory, while cutting down on any overutilization, thus stabilizing prices in the short run. The government’s plans to expand on infrastructure development in the coming years also provides support to investor speculations and have played a role in stabilizing the Chinese steel economy.

The 25 per cent tariffs imposed on steel imports by President Trump, thus, fall short of having a real impact on the Chinese steel industry, in part due to China’s relatively unimportant position in US steel imports (China is the 25th largest exporter of steel to the USA), and in part because of the foresight of the Chinese government.

So while the Chinese steel industry did face multiple shocks over the course of the 2018 trade war and global infrastructural slowdown, the government’s preemptive measures of securing a strategic sector allowed it to come out of the tussle relatively unharmed. While the opacity of government and industrial operations make it tough to analyze the situation in greater depth, one can say that the Chinese steel industry has been able to cope with the changing world geopolitical scenario with ease.

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