Since China’s rise to the rank of second world economy in 2014, there is no country or industry on the planet that is not affected, in one way or another, by the political and economic decisions taken behind the closed doors of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
A good example is new title that was bestowed upon Xi Jinping last week, who will now be known as the “core of the Chinese Communist party.” This highly symbolic title was granted during the 6th plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP and effectively makes President Xi Jinping not just the first among equals, but the clear leader of his generation.
Newly invested with the title, we can expect Xi Jinping to intensify his zeal in the fight against corruption and economic reform. This move has been seen in China as a clear message for both local and provincial officials – now with more power than ever, the Chinese President will be able to stand up to rival groups and to those who seek to protect their vested interests, such the powerful state enterprises and their associated political patrons.
It is too early to tell if this new title will in fact help President Xi Jinping’s “supply-side reform”, which aims to transform the Chinese economy from a high growth export-based regime to an average growth model based on domestic consumption. But one thing is sure: the effects of this reform – described by Prime Minister Li Keqiang as “painful” – will continue to be felt throughout the world, even more so in the European and North American aluminum industry.
While the slowdown in Chinese growth is making headlines in the Western press, it is worth recalling that China’s services sector is undergoing “explosive growth”, as described by macroeconomic research firm BCA. The real problem is that this tertiary growth is not yet strong enough to offset the hardships affecting heavy industry and large state companies – the real losers of the economic slow-down.
Indeed, China’s massive investment in heavy industry during the 90s have created problems of production overcapacity that are visible today, as well as becoming the main obstacle for the sector to reform itself and transit toward to a new growth regime. It is therefore not surprising that Xi Jinping’s supply-side reform has been greatly hampered by the inertia and conservatism of China’s heavy industry, among which figures prominently the aluminum industry.
President Xi finds itself prisoner of a precarious balance where he needs to reconcile its goal of economic reform with the entitlements of Chinese aluminum smelters. If Xi wants to go ahead with his reform, he has no other choice but to adopt mitigation measures, even though such measures may hurt the initial objectives of his reform. His recently upgraded title may change things, but for now, one does not go without the other.
This is how Beijing came to strongly encourage Chinese aluminum companies to look for solution abroad, i.e. solve overproduction through what most industry insiders do not hesitate to call dumping. The overproduction was therefore dumped on the world market, with the tacit approval of Beijing – always anxious to ensure social stability by reducing the discontent among its industrial giants.
While aluminum production in China has doubled since 2005 (totaling 54.4% of world production), its exports rose by 250% from 2.6 million tons in 2005 to 6.7 in 2015. This trend undeniably contributed to the 40% drop in prices of the light metal over the past five years, raising the ire of foreign producers.
The problem with encouraging large aluminum producers to clear their extra stocks by flooding foreign markets is that, although it can seem an attractive solution on the short term, it remains counter-productive in the long term and controversial abroad.
Given the sheer size of China’s aluminum industry, accounting for more than 50% of the world aluminum production, immediate and disastrous effects of such policy abroad were unavoidable.
In reaction, foreign political and industrial leaders have multiplied admonitions toward Beijing, insisting on two points: the damage created by aluminum dumping and the risk of a too rapid production restart.
This is precisely the message that US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew communicated to his Chinese counterparts during his visit to Beijing in June, calling for a substantial reduction of Chinese aluminum production to stabilize world markets.
“Excess capacity is not just a domestic issue in China,” the US Treasury Secretary said. “The question of excess capacity is one that literally has an enormous effect on global markets for things like steel and aluminum, and we’re seeing distortions in global markets because of excess capacity.”
Before that, in February, European authorities also made known their dissatisfaction, emphasizing that the problem is primarily of political nature.
Joerg Wuttke, President of EU Chamber of Commerce in China, explained that this is partly the result of the inability to Beijing to fully control some well-established industrial giants who are very jealous of their prerogatives. “Local protectionism is very strong,” he said, “and the current role of the Chinese government in the economy is part of the problem.”
“China has not followed through on the attempts it has made over the last decade to address overcapacity,” Joerg continued. “Overcapacity has been a blight on China’s industrial landscape for many years now, affecting dozens of industries and wreaking far-reaching damage on the global economy in general, and China’s economic growth in particular. ”
This comes at a time where new anti-dumping probes into Chinese steel imports are being launched, with EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem warning: “We cannot allow unfair competition from artificially cheap imports to threaten our industry.”
These statements echo those of Russian aluminum giant UC Rusal last May, which warned Beijing against a too quick restart of production that could endanger the slight recovery seen in recent months, indicating that doing so would imperil global aluminum prices.
According to Oleg Mukhamedshin, UC Rusal’s Deputy Chief Executive, China’s smelters should exercise better control and have stricter discipline when it comes to their production to “ensure gradual improvement in prices and profitability.”
Chinese overproduction in the aluminum sector has thus managed to accomplish a feat at which many of the best diplomats have failed countless times – to reach unanimity in Moscow, Brussels and Washington.
A precarious balance
Despite difficulties, Aluminium Insider analyst Chistopher Clemence noted some signs pointing to positive developments. According to his information, Chinese banks are more and more recalcitrant to finance new projects in the aluminum sector, which is now increasingly known for its losses. This may very well calm the ardor of overly ambitious entrepreneurs wanting to build new smelters.
In addition, the aluminum domestic consumption is growing at a faster rate than expected – an increase of 9.9 million metric tons in the first quarter of 2016, a year-on-year increase of 8.1%.
But other signs point instead to a worsening of the situation, indicating that warnings coming from western capitals did not have the desired impact. Just a few weeks ago, Zhang Bo, CEO of China Hongqiao – one of the largest aluminum producers in the world – categorically denied fears of overproduction, while emphasizing that Chinese smelters had made significant progress in term of “self-discipline.”
This denial worries Paul Adkins, President of the consulting firm AZ China, who remains skeptical about the underlying desire of Beijing to genuinely proceed with economic reform. In view of the mantra of “supply-side economics” of the Chinese government, he asks, how can Beijing still allow restarts and capacity additions in the aluminum sector?
“Ultimately, the rhetoric on supply-side reform is nothing but empty words,” he wrote.
Adkins is also pessimistic about future price trend. He explained that China’s aluminum production record – 91,900 tons per day – was reached in June 2015, after which production began to slowly decline. With recent restarts and capacity additions, this production record may well be broken shortly (if it is not already the case). Once this psychological barrier has been broken, nothing will stop the pressure pushing down the price of the light metal to grow stronger and stronger.