US steel wins import victory, but it may be hollow

The US steel industry, having sprung some major leaks, has just applied a patch to its tiniest hole - European imports.

This is the reaction of some steel experts outside the industry to last Friday's decision by the International Trade Commission that subsidized European steel imports have indeed ''injured'' the American industry.

In 14 of 16 cases brought by US steel companies against European companies, the ITC ruled in favor of the US, and against companies in Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Britain, and West Germany. The decision paves the way for ''countervailing duties'' - already determined by the Department of Commerce in August - to be imposed on some European steel imports. Broadly speaking, the duties would be enough to offset the amount of subsidies.

The duties, which would be retroactive to last June, will take effect shortly after the ITC formally informs the Department of Commerce on Oct. 21 of its ruling. But just when the ruling takes effect is a ''big if,'' as one steel analyst with Chase Econometrics, a forecasting firm, put it.

What might come up instead is an alternative agreement in the works between the European Community and the Department of Commerce. The Europeans are trying to establish a quota which would guarantee them part of the US market. They see this as more palatable. Their steel companies would keep all the sales revenue and not turn over a large chunk of potential revenue to the US government as duties.

An agreement has not yet surfaced because of certain objections by US steel officials and some internal disputes in the EC. ''Negotiators are neither optimistic nor pessimistic,'' says a Commerce spokesman, ''but will continue to negotiate'' until the Oct. 21 deadline.

But import relief by agreement or by duties seems to be one drop in the bailout bucket as the US steel industry tries to keep itself afloat. Charles Bradford, a vice-president at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith and an expert on steel, says the real issue is wages. Imports are being tackled by the industry because they're noticeable and easier to do something about, he says.

''The ITC decision will have almost no impact,'' he says. ''Imports are hurting them, but by attacking them the way they have, they have given the steelworker an excuse for not recognizing the real problem - which is labor costs.''

In this industry, labor accounts for over 40 percent of costs, Mr. Bradford says. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), 1982 wages, including benefits, averaged $24.84 per hour worked. This compares with 1981 wages in Canada of $12.63, in Japan of $10.15, and in Europe, a range of $7.13 to $15.06.

The industry is not exactly coming to its knees, but it is in hard times. Bethlehem Steel is in the midst of closing down four shipyards and two steel plants. Republic Steel recently let go 700 employees. National Steel's salaried workers just had their pay slashed 10 percent. Since August, about 20,000 steelworkers have been laid off.

For the first nine months of this year, the industry has been operating at 50 .2 percent of capacity, compared with 81.7 percent for the same time last year. ''The industry as a whole is expected to be in the red this year - a first since 1938,'' an AISI spokesman said. He went on to say that the result of the ruling on imports ''will be to transfer more sales volume to the US industry.''

The industry says it's foundering because of a number of factors:

* Imports: A strong dollar makes imports significantly less expensive here. Subsidized imports and dumping don't help, either. In the 1970s, imports accounted for 15.3 percent of supply in the US market, the AISI says. This year they account for 22.6 percent. The imports cited by the ITC account for about 11 percent of all steel imports, a commission spokesman says.

* Tax policy: The Reagan administration is not lenient enough in depreciation allowances, the industry claims. Therefore, it's not economic for companies with old steel machinery to write it off and order new machinery.

* Regulatory policy: The industry is particularly irritated by the way it has to conform to pollution controls.

* Economics: The recession is pulling down demand for steel - especially in the auto and construction industries. Lower prices, forced by imports, are not enough to increase demand, the AISI says.

However, ''the problem is not cyclical, it's structural,'' says Harald Malmgrem, a former high US trade official. He describes the duties and agreement process as scenarios that, either way, will leave US industry ''between a frying pan and a fire.''

If the dutiesm go through, it will worsen trade relations with Europe. European steel producers are also making heavy layoffs. Meanwhile, he argues, other steel producers - South Korea, Canada, Japan, and Spain - will jump in to get the market leftovers.

If the agreement goes through, he says, ''it would peel away one layer of irritation'' between the allies, but other countries would still pick up the market slack. There is just too much steel capacity in the world, he adds.

Merrill Lynch's Mr. Bradford says this problem of too many producers will result in a 20 percent shrinkage of the US steel industry over the next 10 years , with 100,000 more unemployed steelworkers on the way. The industry has ''clearly reduced'' such costs as energy consumption, he acknowledges, but this is not enough.

Even an ITC commissioner said the import decision would not solve the domestic industry's problems: ''To an industry plagued by prolonged, deep recession, delayed modernization, an overvalued dollar, and a noncompetitive cost structure, these duties are no panacea,'' commissioner Paula Stern was quoted by United Press International as saying.

The industry, however, says it can tackle only one problem at a time. It sees this as a starting point.

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