If the steel industry was looking for a pill to cure all of its ills, it didn't fine one in President Carter's steel revitalization program announced last week.
Some steel industry and government officials agree that the policy is only a first step toward good health. But how long it will take the government's medicine to work -- if it is effective -- is anyone's guess. Government officials expect their program to spell relief for the industry within five years, the maximum amount of time most of the plan will be in force.
Some steel analysts, who didn't want to be identified, say it may be at least two years before the industry sees any influx of money despite Carter's plans to cut taxes and to relax Clean Air Act compliance deadlines on a case-by-case basis so that the companies can plow more money into steelmaking machinery. More jobs slowly will become available, too, as the economy in general improves.
"Three or four years from now the industry will begin to be physically different," one steel industry analyst said. "That's the lead time it takes to engineer, design, order, debug and use equipment and only if the company is able to make money."
In addition, the proposals for tax incentives and relaxed environmental deadlines must wade through Congress next year.
"We don't expect any dramatic turnaround," one government official said. "We can look for increases in U.S. production, more jobs and a healthier market."
However, another government official said the administration expects the industry to be well on its way toward recovery in five years.
"it would be a pity if nothing was done for the first three years, even a modest beginning," John Greenwald, a deputy assistant Commerce secretary, said of the steel industry's efforts. "We're going to be looking for progress."
But the steel industry still seems to be looking more toward stemming imports as a major solution to its problems than toward Carter's other programs, although every little bit helps. As one industry expert said, the industry still has to sell as much stell as possible to make money.
"If imports can be kept at 13 to 14 percent and not 21 percent and 22 percent, that will make a tremendous contribution," an analyst said.
For example, Carter's tax programs during the first year would provide the entire industry with about $150 million, enough to buy one-fifth of a hot strip mill or one-third of a blast furnace.The industry estimates that it will need about $5.5 billion over the next five years for modernization and environmental and safety expenditures excluding expansion of capacity.
"What the program means then is not that there will be money put in industry's pocket, but it signals that over time the administration will try to do things to help industry help itself," an analyst said.
In the import area, Carter instituted a new trigger-price mechanism lasting up to five years that when it becomes effective on Oct. 21 will rise an average of 12 percent more than prices levels last March and allow investigation of some dumping complaints without the trigger-price suspension the government has said would ordinarily happen.
Last spring several steel industry leaders complained that the government hadn't monitored steel imports effectively and that some were entering U.S. markets at prices below the cost of production (a process known as dumping) and were injuring domestic steel makers. US. Steel Corp. filed dumping complaints against steelmakers in seven European countries last March but, as part of the president's strategy, the firm dropped its complaints last week.
One of the reasons that the government negotiated with U.S. Steel to drop the complaints was the strong possibility that the Commerce Department, in a decision scheduled for Oct. 17, would have found that the Europeans were selling steel here below its fair value. This would have created tensions with some allies and opened the possibility of trade retaliation, some government officials said.
In that instance, the Europeans probably would have withdrawn from U.S. markets, which likely would have been followed by an influx of legally lower-priced steel from less-developed countries such as Korea and Taiwan.