The chairman of the nation's largest steel company is willing to give the government more of a chance to work out its special program to restrain imports than most of his fellow steel executives.
Edgar B. Speer, chairman of U.S. Steel Corp., said that while he is concerned about a surge in July, he thinks the Treasury Department's program that sets minimum prices for imported steel is the best way to approach the problem.
"There isn't anything wrong with the system," Speer said in an interview.
Many steel executives - including those at Armco and Kaiser - have branded the program a failure. The price program began last May.
Bethlehem Steel Corp., chairman Lewis W. Foy, who is also head of the American Iron and Steel Institute, said in a Washington press conference Thursday that unless the Treasury comes up with a revised approach - including perhaps a special set of minimum prices aimed at European steel producers - the steel companies will have to start filing anti-dumping charges against foregin steel makers with the Treasury.
Speer, too, conceded that if imports continue to come in at a level of 1.8 million to 2 million tons a month in August and September, he would have to reconsider filing anti-dumping charges.
But that stance is more moderate than the one adopted by many steel executives, who say the so-called trigger price program must lower imports to 1 million tons a month. Speer merely said he hoped to see a "substantial" reduction in imports.
Steel companies have long complained that foreign producers sell their product below fair value in the United States (in steel cases that usually means below cost). That is called dumping which is a violation of U.S. trade laws.
Anti-dumping petitions provide relief long after the alleged violations occur (the Treasury investigation often takes close to two years before a decision is reached). The trigger price program, on the other hand, is designed to discourage foreign steel makers from trying to sell below cost and also quickly flags any potential violations. The minimum prices are based on the cost of producing steel in Japan supposedly the world's most efficient steel producer.
The Treasury has long said it could not administer both a special import price program and cope with large numbers of anti-dumping suits. The steel industry voluntarily withdrew most of the anti-dumping complaints after the trigger price program was announced.
Speer also said he still expects the industry will ship about 96 million tons of steel this year, up from about 91 million tons last year, and will ship another 96 million tons of steel in 1979.
Steel imports averaged about 2 million tons a month during the first four months of this year, but dropped to 1.5 million tons in May and 1.36 million tons in June, in large part because of the trigger price program.
In July, however, they climbed back to nearly 1.8 million tons.
While conceding the July bounceback trouble Speer said he does not think the program should be changed yet. He does think, however, that the actual trigger prices are about $38 a ton too low.
But, Speer said, the government will "become more adept" at divining true production costs in Japan the longer it works with the program. The Treasury will announce trigger prices for the first quarter of 1979 in about a month.
"The fellows doing this job have been in place for only the last three or four months. It's a brand new experience for them," Speer said. He acknowledged, however, that the industry "cannot afford to go broke waiting" for them to learn the job.
The U.S. Steel chairman has a vested interest in seeing trigger prices succeed. Last fall, when the steel industry and a newly formed congressional steel caucus began pressuring the administration for import relief, most industry officials wanted to impose formal quotas on imports.
Speer, however, agreed with the Administration's desires to base a steel import policy on "fair price," which would permit foreigners to sell steel at a level which reflected their full costs of production, but would not artificially exclude any steel from the U.S. market.