Winter has come: the state of steel in China

It’s hard to understand the Chinese economy without understanding what’s going on in the steel sector. I found the following short interview with Cai Rang, chairman of the China Iron & Steel Research Institute Group, to be one of the better recent summaries of the situation I’ve come across in domestic sources, and also useful as an indicator of what some insiders are thinking. Here’s my translation:

Interviewer: How is the current round of excess capacity in steel different from those that came before?

Cai Rang: During the past few years, China did not clearly recognize the historical stage of development that the steel industry had reached. Therefore when steel prices would rise and fall, everyone would think: winter has come, so spring cannot be far off. Because of this kind of thinking, during the previous rounds of capacity reduction there was no consensus on whether the steel industry was really in winter or in spring, and some companies were still pursuing economies of scale [by continuing to expand].

Now, however, the macro environment has changed, and most people believe that the steel industry will not enter another springtime, and the previous glorious phase of rapid development must end. In short, the steel industry has already entered the post-industrial era. Because of this, the effects of the restructuring, mergers, acquisitions and capacity reduction going on now may be different from before. But we must still avoid the old problem of a capacity rebound [after capacity reduction], and steel companies cannot have a “land grab” mentality [i.e., expanding output while others cut output in order to gain market share, because if every company pursues this strategy then output will not fall]. Reducing excess capacity will mean large numbers of firms closing their doors, and this requires both companies and society to shoulder responsibility.

Interviewer: On the one hand China’s steel industry has excess capacity, but on the other hand there is still a need to import steel, so how should we understand this issue?

Cai Rang: China’s current excess capacity in steel products is a sectoral excess: there is a lot of low-end steel, but the supply of high-end steel is insufficient. The ordinary steel products that China manufactures are not that different from those made abroad, and there are even some technological advantages over foreign companies. But for particular types of steel products there are still about 20 million tons of imports, among which there are about 200 tons of low-volume, high-tech sophisticated steel products that must be imported, such as steel used in airplanes.

In the future steel companies will have to transform their development model, and through product upgrading and replacement move in an energy-saving and environmentally friendly direction. Steel companies will need to put a lot of effort into those high-end products that China lacks and cannot yet produce, but they will also need to avoid creating a second round of excess capacity in high-end steel products that leads to a race to the bottom as they vie to drive down prices.

Judging from China’s current level of industrialization, there are not many steel products that need large amounts of investment and concentrated development. Those that remain are are all high-end specialized products, and investing in these products is much more demanding in terms of equipment, personnel and operating costs.

Interviewer: In order to digest excess capacity, China is exporting a large amount of steel products, and this has led to antidumping cases. What changes do you expect in the steel industry?

Cai Rang: China’s current steel production capacity is 1.2 billion tons, but domestic demand cannot completely absorb this capacity. In 2015 China exported about 100 million tons of steel products; this was a relief for domestic capacity but a shock to the international market. Already nine European countries have made antidumping complaints, and Japan, Korea and India have also complained. This shows that our country’s current steel production capacity is not sustainable, and must be genuinely reduced.

Now the relevant departments are drafting the 13th five-year plan for the iron and steel industry, and the preliminary plan is to first cut 200 million tons, and eventually stabilize steel capacity around 700 million tons. This will require many companies to exit the market, and those steel companies that remain will experience great changes both internally and externally. For instance externally, the integration of the internet and intelligent manufacturing could cause great changes in steel procurement and sales methods. Internally, the entire production process, the technology configuration, the quality of equipment and the efficiency of production all need to be improved, costs reduced, and energy use and raw material consumption optimized. There are historical reasons for the excess capacity in the iron and steel industry—in the past everyone was desperate to add supply—and today there is still some new capacity awaiting approval from the government. So capacity must be reduced.

Interviewer: Can China draw lessons from any international experience in dealing with the excess capacity problem?

Cai Rang: During America’s industrialization process, steel was one of its three pillar industries. Then came a wave of bankruptcies, and the whole process was very painful. But now output has come down, and there has been a big adjustment in social attitudes. Gradually funds and labor moved to space technology and aerospace, and now investment is in information technology and the internet. Iron and steel production moved to Asia, and Japan’s steel industry rose rapidly—Baosteel and other Chinese steelmakers were all set up to study Japan’s model at that time. The American city of Pittsburgh used to be the steel capital of the US, but today it has already become a city of education, of culture, of science. They got rid of three big steel plants, and in their place built the biggest shopping mall in the region. The whole city has been completely transformed. We can learn from this kind of experience.

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