Not just China: Japan, South Korea push cheap steel as world reels

MANILA/TOKYO (Reuters) - As the world reels from a flood of cheap Chinese steel, other countries including Japan and South Korea are selling products overseas at prices as much as a third lower than in their home markets, according to industry data and officials.

A worker walks among steel sheets at a distribution warehouse in Urayasu, east of Tokyo April 19, 2012. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

The underpricing by the world’s second and third biggest steel exporting countries underscores the pressure facing steelmakers around the globe as the industry grapples with chronic oversupply and sluggish demand.

India’s Tata Steel has blamed a flood of cheap steel imports for a decision to pull out of Britain, putting 15,000 jobs at risk, while one of Australia’s only two steelmakers, Arrium Ltd, has been placed in administration, a form of bankruptcy.

Top producer China has taken much of the blame for plant closures, but other steelmakers are similarly fighting to stay in business.

Japanese companies are selling steel overseas cheaper than in the domestic market partly to compete with China, said an official at a Japanese steel producer, declining to be named because he didn’t want to discuss pricing strategies publicly.

The price is also higher locally to cover the “extras” that steelmakers provide clients such as specific delivery times and services including product quality that make it easier for customers to process them, the producer said.

“That’s something many foreign makers cannot offer,” he said.


H-beam, used in construction, is sold in Tokyo at 69,000 yen ($629) a tonne and is exported at $470 a tonne, free-on-board, according to data from Japanese and Chinese agencies that track the prices.

South Korean hot-rolled steel plate was exported at $522 a tonne on average last year, less than the domestic price of $581 a tonne, according to Korea Iron & Steel Association data.

“As far as the importing country is concerned, it is nothing but dumping from these countries,” said Seshagiri Rao, joint managing director at India’s JSW Steel Ltd.

Japan and South Korea export steel at prices that are 35 percent lower than their domestic prices, said Rao.

“If they are making money in the domestic market, by exporting, as long as they’re able to recover some contribution towards their fixed cost, they’re pushing volume,” he said.

Countries, responding to rising imports and complaints from local producers, are imposing protections and raising objections through international channels.

India in February set a floor price for imports of steel products to deter exporters from undercutting domestic mills, having seen imports from Japan and South Korea jump by almost half in April-February.

Japan has told India it will object to India’s minimum import price and a safeguard duty on imports of some steel products at a World Trade Organisation council meeting on Friday, according to an Indian government letter seen by Reuters.

“By doing so, we want to prevent other countries from following India’s step,” which violates WTO rules, a Japanese government source told Reuters.

Tokyo is asking the United States, the European Union and Taiwan to support its proposal, he added.

India has also started investigations into possible dumping of cheap steel products into the country by six nations including China, Japan and South Korea following complaints from companies such as JSW.

In Australia, Federal Industry Minister Christopher Pyne said the government had applied 41 anti-dumping measures to imported steel products in recent times, including 13 for China and eight for South Korea.

On Thursday, China scrapped some export subsidies on a range of products, including some specialty steel goods, in an effort to reduce trade frictions with the United States.


Japan and South Korea sell more than 40 percent of their steel output overseas, most of it to Asia. Last year, the two countries shipped a combined 75 million tonnes versus 112 million tonnes from China.

Top Korean steelmaker POSCO, the world’s fifth-largest, declined to comment on pricing of exports.

“It is true that Japanese and South Korean steel companies are underpricing some of their steel exports,” said Li Xinchuang, vice-secretary general of the China Iron and Steel Association.

Li dismissed claims Chinese steel companies were doing the same.

But critics say China’s tax rebate system which allows steel exporters to claim refunds by adding even minute amounts of alloys has enabled China, already ahead of competition with cheap labor, to undercut rivals overseas.

“We’ve been forced to be in an unfair competition,” said the Japanese steel producer.

“Steel is such a political and emotional industry all around the world and as such I think that there will always be instances at the margin where various forms of assistance or incentive become available to it, whether short or long term, explicit or implicit,” said Matthew Watkins, principal consultant at CRU in London.

Additional reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal in New Delhi, Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul and Jim Regan in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast