Europe didn't drop a hammer on the Chinese solar industry with its preliminary anti-dumping tariff, but it announced to the world that it's ready to swing if China doesn't play ball. The European Commission announced that starting tomorrow, an 11.8% duty will be charged for imported PV products from China, but that number jumps to between 37% and 67% on Aug. 6 if the EU and China can't reach an alternative agreement.
A few weeks ago, European and Chinese officials sat down to discuss a way to raise prices on Chinese panels so they weren't "dumped" on the European market at a loss, but the discussions quickly broke down, and tariffs were expected to be the alternative. The 37% to 67% number had been reported by The Wall Street Journal, but apparently Europe is willing to give a two-month extension while still displaying that it means business.
Impact on manufacturers
Yingli Green Energy (NYSE:YGE) and Trina Solar (NYSE:TSL) have already come out against the tariffs, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Yingli says it would be hit with a 37.3% duty if we get to Aug. 6 without a deal, and Trina will be at a very onerous 51.5%.
No doubt it would be bad for Yingli and Trina, but it's lower quality and highly leveraged manufacturers that have the most to lose. LDK Solar (NASDAQOTH:LDKYQ) is basically insolvent without Europe and will continue to deteriorate financially. Suntech Power has already defaulted on bonds and sent its largest manufacturing subsidiary into bankruptcy, and if Europe slaps even a 37% duty on imports, it will be in even more trouble.
The timing of tariffs couldn't be worse for Chinese manufacturers. Last month, JA Solar (NASDAQ:JASO) CEO Xie Jian told the Financial Times that solar prices were beginning to stabilize and supply and demand would balance out long-term. If Europe puts hefty tariffs on imports, the demand could take another hit, and Chinese manufacturers would have to rely on China and Japan for even more demand.
A trade war erupts
There are also questions as to how China will react if major tariffs are implemented from Europe. There was little reaction when the U.S. imposed anti-dumping tariffs, but these were largely ineffective because of loopholes manufacturers could use to subvert them.
Europe is a bigger source of demand, and there have already been threats of tariffs on polysilicon imports into China and even a probe into imports of European wine in the past day.
The problem is, China would be hurting its own solar industry by implementing solar-related duties, and extrapolating to other industries is dangerous for an export nation.
Are there winners out there?
So are any companies happy about tariffs on Chinese panels headed for Europe? I talked to SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) CEO Tom Werner recently about potential tariffs, and he called them an incremental positive. Europe is SunPower's worst operating region, and it's far more cost-sensitive than the U.S., so the company could gain some share there.
European manufacturers would also benefit, although many have already been forced into bankruptcy. In the end, the best thing for everyone would be a negotiated agreement, but it appears both Europe and China aren't willing to compromise, and the solar industry will be the one hurt in the long run.
Fool contributor Travis Hoium manages an account that owns shares of SunPower, personally owns shares of SunPower, and has long January 2015 $5, $7, $15, and $25 calls on SunPower. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.