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Obama’s Tariffs on China’s Solar Products Will Cost U.S.

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Illustration by Bloomberg View

Simple economics holds that if you want to promote mass adoption of something, you have to make it affordable and available.

This week, the Obama administration is poised to slap potentially hefty tariffs on imports of Chinese solar products, a move that will satisfy a protectionist urge but undercut the U.S. energy agenda. It’s no secret China is aggressively subsidizing its solar manufacturers, driving down prices for solar panels and components. Here’s the question: Is that a bad thing?

One of the administration’s overarching goals -- and one we heartily endorse -- is fostering the adoption of clean, non- carbon-based energy, including solar. In a perfect world it should matter less where the technology comes from than whether affordable solar is enabling office buildings, universities and households to install the technology and cut down on fossil-fuel use.

Slapping tariffs on the Chinese may make for good politics, but it will slow solar adoption and almost undoubtedly provoke retaliatory trade actions by a country with which the U.S., like it or not, is inextricably linked. It’s not lost on the Chinese that the U.S. has its own share of clean-energy subsidies. A better approach would be to try to negotiate a clean-energy trade agreement with China and other countries trying to promote renewables. Such an agreement would have to spell out the types and levels of allowable government assistance; restrict protectionist measures, such as requiring locally produced components and services; and be subject to dispute resolution by the World Trade Organization.

China’s Subsidies

The lure of punitive tariffs is easy to understand: China, through the use of overly generous subsidies to domestic manufacturers, has helped drive down the price of solar panels 80 percent over the past five years and more than 40 percent in just the past 12 months. Several U.S. solar companies such as Solar Trust of America LLC, Solyndra LLC, Evergreen Solar Inc. and SpectraWatt Inc. have filed for bankruptcy protection, while others are teetering on the edge. The Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, which has petitioned the U.S. Commerce Department for trade sanctions, says China’s tactics have cost 2,000 jobs in the photovoltaic industry alone.

Yet there are other reasons for the solar shakeout. Manufacturers, racing to meet demand over the past decade, are now sitting on a glut of panels as subsidy cuts in Europe and declining natural-gas prices take their toll. As Bloomberg News recently reported, even the largest producers in China say their profits will slump this year as shipments grow.

President Barack Obama has singled out trade actions against China as a hallmark of his administration, saying tariffs such as the 2009 Chinese tire duties have saved jobs. Labor groups and other important constituencies have praised his position.

But a growing body of research shows tariffs might actually cost U.S. jobs, drive up prices and hurt domestic businesses that use imported materials. The Peterson Institute for International Economics, for instance, found that Obama’s tire tariffs came at a steep price to consumers and to workers in other sectors. The analysts concluded the measure did save about 1,200 tire manufacturing jobs but raised tire costs by about $1.1 billion in 2011. Higher-priced tires reduced spending elsewhere, indirectly lowering retail employment by as many as 3,700 jobs. The money didn’t land in the pockets of tire workers but in “the coffers of tire companies, mainly abroad but also at home,” the study said.

How Duties Backfire

Businesses, particularly smaller companies that lack scale to negotiate bulk prices, can also face higher prices from trade sanctions, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis of 35 recent trade sanctions on Chinese goods. A 2009 decision to impose duties on Chinese imports of citric acid, which is used in everything from detergent to soda, resulted in higher prices, the analysis found. U.S. actions don’t happen without consequences. The Chinese routinely retaliate against U.S. trade sanctions by imposing tariffs on American imports such as cars and chicken parts. Energy analysts say China will probably respond to the solar tariffs by imposing a tax on U.S.-made polysilicon, a solar component, further hurting the market.

In March, the Commerce Department imposed preliminary tariffs of as much as 4.73 percent on Chinese solar panels. The move was seen mainly as a slap on the wrist, given that China sells its modules for about 12 percent less. The tariffs being decided this week stand to be much higher -- as much as 100 percent -- which could have major ramifications, particularly for U.S. companies using Chinese materials in their products. It’s no wonder the solar industry is split on the issue.

The political reality is the U.S. will probably decide in favor of tariffs, and we hope the level is low enough that the tax doesn’t hobble solar. But rather than giving in to protectionist tendencies, we encourage the U.S. to take a more diplomatic approach and begin earnest negotiations for a clean- energy trade agreement. Such an idea had been discussed as part of the stalled Doha trade talks and should be revived.

One idea promoted by economists is to model an agreement on the 1996 Information Technology Agreement. The ITA, which now has 70 member countries, eliminated tariffs on hundreds of goods and products, and resulted in skilled countries like the U.S. designing technology products (think iPad) and labor-rich countries like China assembling them (think iPad). Any agreement would have to deal with government subsidies and be subject to dispute settlement by the WTO.

The market is already tilted against renewable sources of energy, with fossil fuels cheap, available and benefiting from entrenched tax benefits. Rather than throwing up roadblocks, the U.S. should be encouraging clean energy, regardless of the country of origin.

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

Today’s highlights: the View editors on a Greek exit from the euro; Margaret Carlson on boring white Republicans; Clive Crook on Germany and Greece; Peter Orszag on small-business woes; Jonathan Weil on JPMorgan Chase and regulators; Rachelle Bergstein on the economics of stiletto heels; and Zvi Bodie and Cornelius Hurley on the Office of Financial Research.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.

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