Currency wars are so pre-“QE eternity.” At least that is the opinion of Indian multi-billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, and owner of the world’s biggest steelmaker, who urged Europe to embrace protectionism and erect trade barriers to “protect” its manufacturers (benefiting one ArcelorMittal among others), while at the same time bashing austerity, saying “the futures of EU manufacturing depended on politicians in Brussels helping industry face what he said was unfair competition from China.” In other words, it’s time for Europe to escalate into full blown trade warfare with China. It is unclear if Mr. Mittal had any thoughts on how China would, in turn, escalate to this progression in trade warfare: whether with tariffs, subsidies, or outright dumping. What does appear quite clear is that the owner of ArcelorMittal, who on Friday posted a net loss of $345 million (down from a $92 million profit a year earlier) on Q1 sales plunging by 13%, whose stock is just off its 52 week lows, and who said he may close plants in Eastern Europe if the “economy continues to slump”, may have some ulterior motives in asking that Europe fight his war for him.
Mr Mittal suggested that Europe should embrace protectionist measures to stop Chinese products flooding the market with cheap goods.
The London-based entrepreneur said Brussels should consider applying higher tariffs on imports of Chinese-produced steel, similar to the ones to be imposed on solar panels made in China. He argued that Chinese producers of steel were over producing, lowering the price of the metal globally.
“There should be increased tariffs for imports, or there should be a surcharge on the steel coming to Europe from countries where environmental standards are very low,” he said.
His call came as EU policy makers adopt an increasingly muscular approach to what they see as unfair competition from Chinese producers across a range of sectors.
Also not surprising was his lashing out at the latest bogeyman for Europe’s economic doldrums: austerity, which has become the old world’s equivalent of Bush, whereby everything that is wrong, is blamed on Germany’s unwillingness to pursue “debt-reduction” policies through the layering of more debt, or in other words, to give the ECB carte blanche to follow in the Fed’s footsteps and engage in outright monetization (a topic extensively discussed previously, and one where Europe will be at an impasse at least until Merkel’s September reelection campaign is successful, or not).
“If Europe continues only with the austerity programme without spending money on growth for infrastructure, things will never improve,” Mr Mittal told the Financial Times. “We can clearly see that austerity is not helping economies to come out of recession.”
He added: “They [policy makers] have to save European manufacturing, whatever you may call it, what I want is actions to save the domestic manufacturing, including steel.”
At least now thanks to Lakshmi, Europe has a new bogeyman: evil, efficient Chinese steel plants which should be stigmatized due to “very low environmental standards.”
Just as not surprising, was the lack of macro economic “advice” geared at the US – after all there Mittal’s operations are still quite profitable:
ArcelorMittal executives say the operating environment in the Americas is much healthier than in Europe. Louis Schorsch, who heads a large part of the American business, said that steel consumption in the United States was approaching levels last seen before the financial crisis. Demand from the auto industry, probably the company’s most important customer in the United States, is ‘‘a good story’’ and housing is ‘‘a little better,’’ he said, while demand for drill pipe and other energy-related products is ‘‘a little bit off.’’
But in Europe it is a different story entirely:
Mr. Mittal said Friday that while the results were ‘‘still not satisfactory, at least I am starting to see the benefits of the actions we have taken’’ to reduce capacity.
Given the slump in demand in Europe, ‘‘we felt that this is not a cyclical but a structural change,’’ he said. ‘‘We needed to take action.’’
The closing of operations in Europe, especially at Liège, Belgium, and Florange, France, has led to tension with governments and unions.
The French government last year threatened to nationalize the Florange site, but Mr. Mittal largely held firm on his plans to permanently close blast furnaces there. The company did say Friday that it had begun a new production line at Florange for modern, lightweight automotive steel with the trademark Usibor.
Bottom line: Mittal’s advice to France – don’t target me, but instead make things much worse by re-escalating trade tensions and taking up the global currency wars at least one level. As for the long-term consequences of China getting actively involved in trade warfare, well – the stock market really only cares 1-2 quarters out. What happens in 2014, 2015 and so on, that’s someone else’s concern.
ArcelorMittal, which is based in Luxembourg, still looks as if it has a long way to go before it returns to the high profitability it enjoyed before the onset of the global financial crisis. The company reported net income of $10.4 billion in 2007.
‘‘There is a glut of steel supply globally,’’ said Jeff Largey, an analyst at Macquarie in London. ‘‘That is going to prevent a company like ArcelorMittal from making the type of profits it did in its heyday.’’
One wonders if Mittal will also demand protectionism to be enacted against Chinese miners next:
Even in mining, where Mr. Mittal is focusing most of his investment these days, the results were not stellar. Operating income of $286 million was down 19 percent compared with the previous year, although it was up 54 percent compared with the last quarter of 2012.
But ignore all that, and just blame China, which was a great friend and ally when it was helping the Indian’s materials empire achieve record profits, but which may be sacrificed at the altar of hollow punditry and macroeconomic myopia once things start turning sour for the bottom line.