The war of words against Chinese solar panel makers is heating up from both sides of the Atlantic, with growing signs that Europe may reconsider anti-dumping duties as the US moves closer to imposing its own new duties on the beleaguered manufacturers. Meantime, 2 of the biggest Chinese victims of the sector's recent turmoil have risen from the ashes, with LDK (NYSE:LDK) and Suntech (NYSE:STP) both announcing new moves more than a year after each became insolvent. Among those 2 moves, LDK's looks the most worrisome, potentially bringing major new volumes of polysilicon, the main ingredient in solar panel production, back into a market whose current recovery is still quite weak.
All of these separate developments show the solar industry has yet to reach a new state of stability, and that such a new equilibrium could still be years away as market and government forces intermingle to keep the sector in a state of uncertainty. The latest destabilizing forces began late last week in the US, as Washington moved one step closer to imposing new anti-dumping duties on Chinese panels. That move was largely expected and aimed at closing a loophole in an earlier ruling, and drew the usual howls of protest from Beijing and most of the country's major solar panel makers.
In a new and similar development from Europe, a major local trade group is blasting a compromise agreement reached between China and the EU last year that averted a similar trade war. I'll admit I don't completely understand the logic in the new sounds of dissatisfaction coming from EUProSun, a group that represents about 40 percent of EU solar panel makers, including Germany's outspoken SolarWorld (Frankfurt: SWVKk).
But the bottom line is that the European manufacturers believe that last year's landmark compromise agreement isn't working. These latest protests come just over a month after the European panel makers previously complained that their Chinese rivals were finding loopholes to evade terms of the same compromise agreement.
If there's any truth to the European complaints, which seems likely, it could soon become difficult for the European Trade Commission to ignore the situation as more local companies struggle and even go bankrupt. Europe's trade commissioner previously wanted to impose anti-dumping tariffs on the Chinese panel makers similar to those from the US, and was only prevented from doing so after several major EU leaders intervened to seek a compromise solution. Thus if the compromise really isn't working, the EU could easily reopen its investigation into unfair state support for the Chinese panel makers and impose punitive tariffs as soon as by the end of this year.
Meantime, let's look quickly at the latest news bits from LDK and Suntech, 2 former sector leaders that both went bankrupt and are just now starting to regroup and resume business after major reorganizations. The most worrisome of the news bits says that LDK is planning to restart a long-idled plant making polysilicon, the main ingredient used to make solar panels. (Chinese article) The massive 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) plant had been idled for 2 years, and its return to the market will inevitably put pressure on global polysilicon and panel prices.
Suntech's news looks a bit more benign, and will see the company open a subsidiary to serve South Africa. The move is one of the first major ones by Suntech since its primary assets were acquired last year by Hong Kong-listed Shunefeng (HKEx: 1165), which is now trying to move ahead with the well-known Suntech name. An aggressive new Suntech in the solar market could also undermine the sector's recent stabilization, hinting at turbulent times ahead for the sector for the rest of this year and into 2015.
Bottom line: The EU is likely to reopen an anti-dumping probe into Chinese solar panel makers and impose punitive tariffs, while new moves by Suntech and LDK will further undermine the sector's recovery.