Reckless or evil? You decide. In July 2009, the US Department of Commerce started an anti-dumping investigation of the "narrow woven ribbon with woven selvedge" industry. Never heard of it? It's the colored ribbon Americans use primarily in gift-wrapping. It's not a particularly big industry, probably less than $500 million a year in retail sales in the US. But, adding ribbon to gift-wrapped packages is a staple of American culture. The major store chains like Target, Wal-Mart, Michael's and Costco all stock a wide variety of ribbon in different colors and widths, and sell it for a few dollars per pack.
Back when I was a kid, the ribbon was made by American manufacturers. Gradually, of course, much of the production shifted to Asia, first Taiwan, then China. Lowering manufacturing costs also kept retail prices down, which has likely allowed more Americans to use more ribbon to decorate their gifts. Who could complain about that?
There remains one large American manufacturer called Berwick Offray, based in Pennsylvania. They've been in the woven ribbon business for over 100 years. They launched the complaint that led to the US government action, claiming they were suffering "material harm" because of Chinese ribbon being dumped in the US. According to the official document issued by the Department of Commerce in July 2009, the US government's preliminary investigations seemed to confirm Berwick Offray's contention that Chinese manufacturers were receiving state subsidies as a way to flood the US market and steal market share, harming Berwick's business. The US government signaled its intention to levy punitive tariffs on the Chinese imports.
In its 142-page 2009 preliminary report, (click here to download) the Department of Commerce offers a feedlot of industry data, manufacturing techniques and product descriptions, all of which are aimed to substantiate the claim that Chinese manufacturers, who now hold the largest share of the US market, are selling the ribbon in the US below cost, with the loss being covered through a variety of unspecified subsidies from the Chinese government. Keep in mind that the total amount of US imports of woven ribbon from China seemed then to be below $100mn. A lot of market share data in the report was blacked out, presumably for commercial secrecy reasons. A lot of other information was absent because the Commerce investigators said they couldn't find people willing or able to answer its questions.
So, the entire US federal government investigation, and preliminary finding of Chinese ribbon dumping was based both on incomplete data, and the dubious premise that the Chinese government would actively intervene with subsidies in such a small market. Total Chinese exports to the US in 2011 exceeded $400 billion. So, if the data is right, Chinese woven ribbon represents about 0.025% of total Chinese exports. The manufacturers are mainly privately-owned Chinese companies, not big SOEs with political clout in Beijing.
Among those Chinese manufacturers, one stands out for its scale, its variety of products and leading market share in the US. The company is called Yama Ribbon. They are based in Xiamen and dominate the industry in China. Yama is named in the Commerce Department report as one of the major exporters to the US. Since Yama is the biggest Chinese exporter, and the US government is suggesting Chinese government subsidies allow Chinese manufacturers to sell their ribbon below cost, it stands to reason that Yama should be fingered in the report as the main beneficiary of these subsidies. Right? The US government couldn't possibly allege the Chinese government is subsidizing a product unless they've already confirmed the main Chinese producer is receiving such subsidies. Right?
Wrong. Trade policy, anti-dumping actions, punitive tariffs are very often a political toy in the US. Too often, US companies can use lobbyists or friendly politicians to pressure the Commerce Department to initiate an investigation. That alone can often cause exporters, whether they are dumping or not, to increase their prices, just to try to avoid any unilateral action by Washington. This, then, boosts the competitive position, and so the profits, of the US company that started the anti-dumping ball rolling. It isn't called corruption, but often it should be understood as such.
Is this the case with Berwick Offray and woven ribbon? Did it use the US political process to help its foundering business in the US? That seems the case to me. Here's why. After its initial report in 2009, the Commerce Department launched a more detailed analysis to identify all the subsidies Yama Ribbon and other Chinese manufacturers were receiving from the Chinese government.
In July 2010, the US officials announced they could find no evidence of Yama receiving any subsidies whatsoever. Yama Ribbon products were assigned an "anti-dumping" duty of 0%. It was a complete victory for Yama and a repudiation of misguided US protectionist trade policies. It received about zero press coverage, in China and the US, which is a shame. Next time you hear someone spouting off about "unfair China trade practicies" or "predatory pricing", think about Yama.
Several other Chinese manufacturers were found to be receiving subsidies, and their products were slapped with punitive duty rates of 125% to 249%. But, Yama is the main producer and exporter. If it's receiving no subsidies, then it is impossible to claim the Chinese government is rigging the market to the detriment of Berwick Offray and the few other remaining US producers of woven ribbon.
How, you might ask, could the US government have even issued the preliminary 2009 report before establishing beyond doubt that Yama was getting favors from the Chinese government? The same question occurred to Yama's founder and CEO, Yao Ming. (Yes, same name, but no relation to - physically or by bloodline - to the Chinese basketball star.) When he heard about the 2009 investigation and preliminary finding, Yao understood immediately it had the potential to damage, if not ruin his entire business, with 2011 revenues of over USD$50mn and over 1,000 employees. The US is his key market, over 70% of total turnover.
I'm fortunate enough to know Yao Ming. He's a modest, hard-working entrepreneur, among the best I've ever met. My guess is as a businessman he could run circles around the people who manage Berwick Offray. He's not a political creature, speaks very little English, and until then, was unschooled in the ways of US trade policy. The US government was asserting Chinese ribbon exporters were getting subsidies and yet Yao knew he was receiving nothing. Knowing, and proving it to Washington, of course, are very different stories. He tried getting help from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. But, they told him, effectively, he would have to fight this one on his own. They have bigger trade battles to wage with the US than this tiny one over gift ribbon.
So Yao hired lawyers, both in China and the US, and fought back. He's the only Chinese entrepreneur I've heard about with this kind of character and self-confidence to spend a not-small amount of money to fight back against the US government. Even more remarkably, he won a resounding and speedy victory.
He more or less dared the US government to prove he was getting subsidies, including indirect ones like loan subsidies, special deals to buy factory land or tax holidays. When the US government couldn't find a thing, it gave up pursuing Yama. Justice, in this case, was served. But, Yao was also lucky. His business is unusual in China. At that time, he has no bank loans, and his factories are rented. Both are rare among manufacturers in China. For any other manufacturer in China, it would be far harder to prove as quickly an absence of subsidies, direct or indirect. Yao needed to act, before the threat of an anti-dumping action permanently damaged his business in the US.
As an American citizen, I'm more than a little disgusted by what the US government did in this case: it made that 2009 announcement, declaring a preliminary finding, without really checking its facts. Had Yao not acted quickly, hired lawyers and proved his case, his business would have been sunk, and Americans would end up paying much more to decorate their gifts.
Had Commerce wanted to, it would have taken almost no time or effort to establish that Yama, as the largest Chinese ribbon exporter, was likely getting nothing from the Chinese government. But, they didn't bother. That's the worst of it. People at the Department of Commerce know how damaging an investigation and preliminary finding like this can be to any businesses implicated in wrongdoing.
In the end, from what I can tell, Commerce cared more about placating Berwick Offray than in making sure it didn't unjustly harm a company faraway in China. Everything, in the end, has turned out well for Yao Ming and Yama. His business, including exports to the US, continue to thrive. He has some of the highest net margins I've seen in a Chinese manufacturing company. His revenues this year will approach USD$100mn. He has opened an office now in New Jersey to help handle all the orders. His Chinese competitors are now largely shut out of the US market because of the punitive duties. None seems to have had the scale or cash to hire lawyers and go to court in the US, as Yao Ming did. So whether these punitive duties are justified is, to me, an open question.
Yama's business is number one in the US not because it sells product at the lowest price. It doesn't. It has a better business model, thanks to the business smarts of its founder Yao Ming. He keeps a large stock of ribbon in a huge array of sizes and colors in inventory in the US, to meet spot orders. While it increases his costs, because of the extra working capital needed to finance the inventory, distributors and retailers can get orders filled more quickly. So, they buy from Yama. The company's scale and service allow it now to earn margins that would be the envy of just about every other manufacturer operating in China.
Yao Ming is Chinese. But, he is the kind of Horatio Alger entrepreneur many in the US most admire. He makes a good product, sells it at a fair price, is good to his workers, and fought back against knuckle-headed Washington bureaucrats and won.