The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) yesterday determined by a 3-2 vote that the domestic U.S. tire industry was not injured or threatened with injury by imports of truck and bus tires from China. Although the U.S Department of Commerce last month in its concurrent investigations had determined that Chinese truck and bus tires were dumped and subsidized, the ITC’s negative determination means no more antidumping or countervailing duties (AD/CVD) will be collected on imported Chinese truck and bus tires.
The ITC’s negative determination is a good indication that for all the protectionist rhetoric and trade saber rattling from the Trump administration, the ITC is not just going to rubber stamp every case filed by a petitioning domestic industry. The ITC will still decide its AD/CVD cases based on the extensive amount of industry data collected from its investigations and will not rely just on the alternative facts offered by petitioners.
This tires case was weak from the outset. First, it was brought only by the United Steel Workers (which represents the workers at the big U.S. tire factories) and not by the tire companies themselves. Unlike virtually all other AD/CVD cases, the domestic producers in this case did not want to sign their name to the petition. Some have speculated that the Steel Workers filed this and other tire AD/CVD cases to obtain negotiating leverage to try to extract production and wage concessions from the U.S. tire industry management.
Although the U.S. market for truck and bus tires in 2015 was about $ 6 billion dollars, U.S. producers supplied only 60 percent of that demand. U.S. truck and bus tire producers already are operating at full capacity, so even with new U.S. tire factories opening, imports are still clearly needed to meet U.S. demand. China was the leading import source of truck and bus tires with about $ 1.2 billion imported in 2015.
All the U.S. produced tires were of premium brands, whereas most of the Chinese tires were sold under lesser known or private label brands. Because consumers generally associate producers’ brand names such as Goodyear or Bridgestone or Michelin with quality and performance, Chinese tires not surprisingly were priced lower when sold under a private label. This price difference associated with the different brands reflects the distinct market segments; the higher priced premium U.S. brands did not really compete with the no-name generics or private label Chinese tires. Moreover, though tire prices declined between 2013 to 2015, this was due primarily to declines in raw material costs, primarily natural rubber. Prices of U.S. tires sold to OEM customers fell at the same rate as prices for U.S. aftermarket sales, even though very few Chinese tires were sold to OEM customers. Chinese tires thus cannot be blamed for the price declines that were occurring.
The domestic tire industry also was performing quite well and thus had a hard time demonstrating it had been injured. The domestic industry was healthy as production, capacity utilization, shipments were all higher in 2015 compared with 2013. Employment, wages and productivity indicators also showed improvement. The domestic producers had high and rising profits (operating income = 20.7%; net income = 18.3%), even though prices had fallen. So, even as Chinese imports were increasing, U.S. tire producers were thriving.
Despite all of these facts, this case could have resulted in an affirmative injury or threat of injury determination based on the increasing volumes of low-priced Chinese import tires that reducing the domestic producers’ market share. An argument can also be made that the significant volume of Chinese tires caused the domestic industry to lose revenue and be less profitable than it would have been without the Chinese imports.
In its preliminary investigation, the ITC made an affirmative determination by a 4-2 vote that the domestic industry was injured or threatened with injury, but two of the six Commissioners changed their positions in the final investigation. Vice Chairman David S. Johanson had found a threat of injury in the preliminary investigation, but switched to a negative injury/ threat determination in the final. Commissioner Dean A. Pinkert voted affirmative in the preliminary determination but then abstained and did not participate in the final investigation. If either of these two votes had stayed affirmative, a 3-3 tie vote would have resulted in AD/CVD duty orders being issued. Given the closeness of the vote, I expect the United Steel Workers will appeal the ITC’s negative determination to the U.S. Court of International Trade
Ultimately, this ITC negative determination was not only a huge victory for the Chinese tire industry and for U.S. importers of those tires, but also for anyone who wants U.S. trade cases to be determined on the facts and the law and legal arguments presented and not just on a protectionist trade policy. The vast majority of petitions filed have resulted in AD/CVD orders being issued, and it likely will continue this way for the foreseeable future. Given the current political climate, however, it’s nice to see a negative ITC determination just to be reassured that the ITC still recognizes its obligation under U.S. trade laws to conduct investigations fairly and that not all AD/CVD petitions are deserving of trade remedy relief.