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Yellen faces tough road on China's excess capacity problem

By David Lawder

GUANGZHOU, China, April 4 (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen arrives in China's southern factory hub of Guangzhou on Thursday with a tough message to Chinese officials: you're producing too much of everything, especially clean energy goods, and the world can't absorb it.

China is unleashing a flood of electric vehicles (EVs), batteries, solar panels, semiconductors and other manufactured goods onto global markets, the result of years of massive government subsidies and weak demand at home. Global prices for many goods are tanking, pressuring producers in other countries.

"We see a growing threat of money losing firms that are going to have to sell off their production somewhere," a senior U.S. Treasury official said of overproduction in key Chinese sectors.

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In a series of meetings with top Chinese economic officials from Friday through Monday, Yellen will seek to convey her view that the excess production is unhealthy for China and that there is a growing drumbeat of concern about it in the U.S., Europe, Japan, Mexico and other major economies.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that Yellen would explain: "If there are trade actions around the world, it's not an anti-China thing, it's a response to their policies."

But Beijing appears to be doubling down on investing in more manufacturing capacity in favored high-technology sectors, a stance that also is increasingly at odds with the European Union, Japan, Mexico and other major economies.

"I do think the stage is set for renewed tensions with China," said Brad Setser, a former trade official at both the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. Trade Representative's office. "It's an intrinsic question whether other countries want to import China's distortions."

Setser added that Yellen's warnings about Chinese overproduction may be an initial step by the Biden administration towards new tariffs or other trade barriers on Chinese EVs, batteries and other goods.

En route to Guangzhou, Yellen declined to say whether she would raise the threat of new tariffs in her meetings in Guangzhou and Beijing with Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng and Guangdong Province Governor Wang Weizhong, who has also presided over hundreds of billions of dollars worth of recent new projects.

But she said that the Biden administration was determined to develop American supply chains in EVs, solar power and other clean energy goods with investment tax credits and would not "rule out other possible ways in which we would protect them."

In March, China's leadership pledged to follow through on President Xi Jinping's new mantra of unleashing "new productive forces" in China by investing in developing technology industries including EVs, new materials, commercial spaceflight and life sciences - areas where many U.S. firms hold advantages.

FACTORY FIRST

The results of China's prior investment binges are staggering.

Including EVs and combustion-engine cars, China by the end of 2022 had the capacity to produce 43 million vehicles annually, but its plant utilisation rate - a measure closely linked to profitability - was just under 55%, according to data from the China Passenger Car Association.

Bill Russo, the Shanghai-based founder and CEO of advisory firm Automobility, estimated that this translates to excess auto production capacity of about 10 million vehicles a year, or roughly two thirds of North American auto output in 2022.

The Rystad Energy research group estimates that China will soon be able to meet all global demand for lithium-ion vehicle batteries, even as dozens of battery and component plants spring up across the U.S.

And new entrants are still coming into an increasingly cut-throat Chinese EV market. Mobile phone maker Xiaomi on Tuesday launched sales of its sporty new Speed Ultra 7 (SU7) EV.

SOLAR DOMINANCE

The situation in China's solar panel sector may be worse, where overproduction pushed prices down 42% last year to levels 60% below the cost of comparable U.S.-made products. China now accounts for 80% of global production capacity, and major solar producers are continuing to build factories, backed by provincial and local subsidies.

At the end of 2023, China had the capacity to build 861 gigawatts of solar modules per year, more than double the global total installed capacity of 390 million gigawatts. Another 500-600 gigawatts of annual capacity is forecast to come online this year -- enough to supply all global demand through 2032, according to energy research firm Wood Mackenzie.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Stephen Coates)