I applaud the New York Times for uncovering a Goldman Sachs subsidiary ordering the shuffling of aluminum between warehouses to somehow afford itself higher storage fees—at the expense of the consumer. The report is short on specifics as to how it comes by the higher fees, but I don’t doubt it for a second. I mean, the Goldman company wouldn’t pay those men to move all that metal around if it didn’t benefit itself in the process.

If only—with this momentum behind it—the Times would put its team to work on the really big story. It too involves aluminum (as well as many other items) and is even more seedy, and far more costly than one tenth of one cent per can of soda to the end consumer: The U.S. Government (with bipartisan support)—in a most disgusting display of cronyism—imposes import tariffs on low cost aluminum for the sole purpose of increasing the profits of select U.S. manufacturers at the expense of the U.S. consumer.

Goldman’s problem is that it didn’t sell its scheme to Washington. It didn’t offer up any campaign support in return for some cockamamy story about how moving aluminum between warehouses preserves X number of jobs for forklift drivers, warehouse managers, Goldman staff, etc. They (Goldman and Washington) could’ve easily masked the cost to the consumer by touting the job producing benefits of this entirely unproductive exercise. Like the following malarkey reported in the March 8, 2012 issue of Business Week:

Nothing engenders bipartisan harmony like a bill that targets both China and American jobs. With President Barack Obama about to sign into law a measure that lets Washington impose duties on subsidized goods, the question isn’t whether China games the system by supporting key industries—it’s the impact those subsidies have on U.S. jobs.

The law will essentially uphold duties on imports of two dozen “undervalued” products from China and Vietnam, including tires, steel, aluminum, paper, and chemicals. While the $4.7 billion value of those imports is a fraction of the roughly $400 billion of goods the U.S. imported from China last year, the measures against them have apparently saved 80,000 U.S. jobs since 2007, according to proponents of the bill. As Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said: “China doesn’t get a free pass to violate the rules at the expense of American jobs.” Frank Vargo of the National Association of Manufacturers, meanwhile, wrote that failing to impose such punitive measures would leave Americans “defenseless against rampant deep pocket Chinese.”

My, the bennies for the cronies (from Glass Magazine’s October 31, 2011 edition):

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a representative from a U.S.-based aluminum extruder said the tariffs have already proven beneficial: “We saw the effects of the tariffs almost immediately. Chinese extrusion shipments were coming in at about 40 million pounds a month. When the tariffs took hold, they fell immediately to about 1-2 million pounds a month. Clearly, that achieved its goal. We can also see the effects in our order intake rates. For the first quarter after [the tariffs] had taken hold, orders were up and shipments were up. It was quite a spike.”

“Overall, we believe that the tariffs imposed on aluminum imports will positively benefit Kawneer,” Greg McKenna, chief product engineer, Kawneer North America, and Kevin MacDonald, director of procurement, Alcoa Building & Construction Systems, said in an email. “Recently, there have been several Chinese-based system companies that have been shipping basic stock length storefront and curtain wall systems into the U.S. The Commerce Department now is imposing a 137.5 percent subsidy rate on these imports, which will level the playing field with domestic producers. … The tariffs will help the domestic extruders regain some of the market share that has been lost over recent years to China,” they said.

“Early indicators are proving this was very effective and positive for our members, and those dumped aluminum profiles have pretty much disappeared,” agreed American Architectural Manufacturers Association President and CEO Rich Walker, in an interview with Glass Magazine earlier this year.

Even, if by accident, for stainless steel manufacturers:

High aluminum costs are also behind the trend toward using stainless steel extrusions rather than aluminum in framed enclosures. Some shower enclosure specialists report they are considering a transition to stainless steel, marketing it as a more contemporary finish.

My, the costs for the rest of us:

“With Brite Dip materials no longer available from China, and not currently produced in any other country, we are forced to purchase domestically at 40 percent to 130 percent greater cost,” says Ray Adams, president, Coastal Industries.

“The tariffs have forced manufacturers like us to rethink our manufacturing process. We may not be able to go to market with American-made products as we have in the past,” he says. “Before the tariffs, we could mix imported and domestic metals, fabricate shower doors here in America and compete with imported items. With the tariffs on raw goods, we are all faced with having to look at producing doors overseas, tariff-free, in order to compete.”

Costs for domestic aluminum shower door products remain high, glass companies report, as North American suppliers try to pass on material price increases. Aluminum prices rose sharply during the last half of 2010 and first part of 2011, increasing more than 50 percent from June 2010 to April 2011. At press time, the cash price for aluminum was on a downward trajectory, sitting at about 8.5 percent below last year, and about 21 percent below aluminum’s peak in April.

“On the framed shower door end, the prices all went up,” says Jeff Meyer, president, White Bear Glass. “In fact, the gap in price between a custom aluminum framed shower door and heavy frameless glass shower door is pretty much gone. The change in aluminum pricing radically closed that gap,” he says. “We used to sell 50 percent framed and 50 percent frameless, but in the last year, that’s gone to at least 80/20 towards frameless.”

It’s one thing, and an easy thing, to see (even [supposedly] count) the jobs that were saved by protecting U.S. producers forcing higher prices onto you and me. It’s another thing, and a difficult thing, altogether to understand how those higher costs are distributed throughout the marketplace; hurting the prospects for employment in Lord knows how many industries (as we pay up for the tariffed item, or material, we spend less on other items and services [we save and invest less as well]). I assure you, all things considered, the ultimate cost of protectionism utterly dwarfs the benefits…

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