As you may recall, after a string of very public bankruptcies (*cough* Solyndra *cough*), US solar panel producers - and the Obama administration folks who happily subsidized them - were quick to blame China. If only the Chinese cheaters were purged from the US market, they argued, America would become a global solar panel powerhouse, and the green jobs would flow like (highly subsidized) milk and honey. To achieve this purge, the "domestic" industry (led by Germany's SolarWorld) petitioned the US government for steep anti-dumping and anti-subsidy (countervailing) duties on Chinese imports, and the administration - using US laws that tilt greatly in favor of domestic protectionism - was quite willing to oblige.
However, a new story from the Financial Times' Ed Crooks shows just how wrong-headed that move has turned out to be, and provides yet another lesson in basic trade economics. Prices for panels have risen (slightly), but American producers and workers haven't benefited in the least. Instead (and as I repeatedly predicted), jobs and output are down here, and other imports - not US panels - have replaced the Chinese ones that have been effectively banned from the US market.
Behold, the folly of bilateral protectionism - and the reality of trade diversion - in all of their glory:
In one respect, the duties do seem to have been effective. US imports of cells from China have dwindled, from an average of 11m per quarter in 2011 to just 900,000 in the first quarter of 2013.
The pay-off in US manufacturing and jobs, however, has been elusive. The US has capacity to produce about 1,845 megawatts of solar panels per year, according to IHS, a research company. That is down from 2,027MW a year ago.
The Solar Foundation, an industry-backed think-tank, found that solar companies lost about 8,200 manufacturing jobs last year, about 22 per cent of their total, and expected to regain only about 2,600 this year.
SolarWorld itself has continued to cut jobs in Oregon....
Robert Petrina of Yingli Green Energy, the Chinese group that was the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer last year, said it was untrue that the duties have had no effect, citing higher cell prices in the US than in some other markets such as South Africa, as evidence of the distortions they were causing....
Yingli has been sourcing cells from Taiwan to avoid being caught by the duties on Chinese products. It had its second-best quarter on record in the US in the three months to March and is on track to double its sales to US utilities this year.
Another source of supply to the US has been a surge in imports from Malaysia. The US imported almost as many Malaysian solar cells in the first three months of this year, as in the whole of 2011.
Analysts said much of the increase was probably caused by First Solar, an Arizona company that was the world’s second-largest manufacturer of solar panels last year. It has 85 per cent of its production capacity in Malaysia, and is building several large solar plants in the US....As I mentioned when the original decision to impose duties on Chinese solar panels, part of the reason for the trade diversion at issue here is because the Chinese producers achieved a small victory during the investigation, omitting solar panels made in third countries (like Taiwan) from Chinese parts. This allowed a few Chinese companies to lawfully circumvent the AD/CVD order and still ship large quantities of their product to the United States. That said, the surge of Malaysian and other imports make clear that even closing this "loophole" would do nothing to help US producers and workers for one simple reason: other countries' producers are still cheaper than their American counterparts.
Yet another reminder that protectionism doesn't work, and all those US subsidies were a horrible waste of taxpayer dollars, regardless of those dastardly Chinese cheaters.