America's Energy Advantage Firms Benefit From Overseas Markets, Shouldn't U.S. Gas Producers?

 |  Includes: AA, DOW, UNG
by: Mark J. Perry

Both Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) and Alcoa (NYSE:AA) are listed by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as two of the world's top 100 non-financial transnational corporations (TNCs), ranked by foreign assets in 2012. The chart below displays some 2012 financial data for those two U.S.-based corporations. We can see that more than two-thirds of Dow's annual sales revenues (67.6%) are in foreign markets, and almost half (47.8%) of Alcoa's sales are overseas. For Alcoa, a large majority of its assets (75.6%) and more than half of its employees (57.4%) are outside the U.S. Almost half of Dow's corporate assets (48.9%) and exactly half of its employees are overseas.

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Given the fact that the profits of both companies are heavily dependent on overseas markets for their sales, production, and capital investments, you would think that Dow and Alcoa would generally support international trade and the free flow of goods, inputs, commodities, and investments across national borders, right? Well, when it comes to U.S. energy companies selling their natural gas to overseas buyers, Dow and Alcoa -- and their partners in the anti-export coalition America's Energy Advantage (Eastman, Huntsman, Nucor, Celanese, etc.) -- have suddenly suffered a case of "free trade amnesia" as they have become increasingly protectionist and hostile to the exports of one of their inputs -- natural gas.

In other words, while benefiting and profiting from overseas markets themselves for a large majority of sales for AEA companies like Dow and for a large majority of capital investments for AEA companies like Alcoa, the coalition of companies behind America's Energy Advantage aren't so enthusiastic about inviting other U.S. companies to gain those same advantages, benefits, and profits from overseas markets. Economist and syndicated columnist Walter Williams explains in his recent column, "Energy Manipulation Follows A Trail Of Money":

Washington has stringent export restrictions on natural gas. Naturally, the next question is: Why? Just follow the money. According to, The Dow Chemical Co. 'posted record lobbying expenditures last year, spending nearly $12 million, and is on pace to eclipse that number this year.' The company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars contributing to the political campaigns of congressmen who support export restrictions. Natural gas is a raw material for Dow. It benefits financially from cheap gas prices, which it fears would rise if Congress were to lift export restrictions.

Natural gas producers would like to export some of their product to Europe and Japan to take advantage of higher prices. One effect of those exports would be to raise natural gas prices in the U.S. and lower them in the recipient countries. Industrial giants such as Dow, Alcoa, Celanese and Nucor are members of America's Energy Advantage, a lobby group that says it is unpatriotic to allow unlimited natural gas exports. It argues that export restrictions keep natural gas prices low and give U.S. manufacturing companies a raw material advantage, which allows them to produce goods at lower prices.

I'd like to ask Dow, Alcoa and other companies that lobby against natural gas exports whether their argument applies to them. After all, they ship a lot of their domestic product overseas. For example, Alcoa exports tons of aluminum. Export restrictions on aluminum would lower domestic aluminum prices, thereby benefiting the aircraft industry, as well as making other aluminum-using manufacturers more competitive. Unfortunately, I doubt whether Alcoa would see it that way. In general, it is poor economic policy to encourage domestic American industry through costly and inefficient methods such as export restrictions.

The fact that America is an economic superpower, its citizens enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, and U.S. companies like Dow and Alcoa are among the world's top 100 transnational corporations is at least partly because of our relatively free markets, globalization, and international trade. It is certainly the case that without access to foreign markets, Dow and Alcoa would be much smaller companies with significantly lower profits, and the same would apply to every one of their partners in America's Energy Advantage. Therefore, it seems rather disingenuous for those firms to enjoy greater profitability by having access to foreign markets, but then suddenly try to restrict access to those same foreign markets for other U.S. firms -- such as U.S. energy firms with abundant supplies of natural gas who have eager buyers overseas.