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Meet the US specialist who's trying to nail down the nail-import statistics

It's hard to say how good it will look on his r'esum'e, but Richard Bruno must know more than anyone in the world about Korean nails. He knows them by name, thousands of them. He knows where they go, he knows what they do, and he knows how much they cost. Especially how much they cost.

American nailmakers are charging that the Koreans are violating international trade agreements by selling their nails in this country for less than it costs to make them abroad. As import-compliance specialist with the United States Commerce Department, it is Mr. Bruno's job to find out how much each of Korea's top nail manufacturers spends to make its nails.

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His problem is this: There are 10 leading nail producers in Korea, each of which makes as many as 400 different types of nails. Many of those go by different names at different companies.

To determine whether Koreans are violating the anti-dumping agreements, Mr. Bruno must calculate how much it costs to make each individual type of nail. That in itself can be difficult, as he has learned that the lowly nail has essentially 11 different components, such as the head, the shaft, the tip, and the finish, each of which affects production cost.

He must then add shipping and packaging costs, plus a profit for any middlemen involved in importing the products, then compare those costs to the prices the nails are being sold for in the United States.

Not only must Mr. Bruno go through those calculations for each type of nail, he must repeat the entire procedure for each of scores of shipments, because the various production costs of each nail are constantly fluctuating. The result has been a bureaucrat's nightmare. ``I'm dealing with 30,000 items that I've got to do price comparisons for. That's give or take a thousand,'' Mr. Bruno said in a recent interview. ``It's been quite tedious.''

Adding to his woes has been the fact that none of the Korean companies keeps its records on computers. ``All of their data is submitted on handwritten records,'' Bruno said, adding that he has had to prepare some 6,000 pages of computer codes so that he can enter the information into his computer system.

``For a while there, I was eating and sleeping nails,'' Bruno said, adding that he now looks forward to the moment, sometime in January, ``when I can push that final button and let the computer do the averaging.''

Bruno's plight illustrates the difficulty that the Commerce Department has had in keeping up with the rising tide of imports that has been drawn into the United States by a strong dollar and low wages abroad. To American manufacturers, the problem has become critical.

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``The steel industry does not have the privilege of having its federal govenment enforce the laws that are on the books,'' said William O. Riley, president of the Atlantic Steel Company in Atlanta. ``It is a difficult thing.''

Atlantic Steel, which makes steel nails and sells steel to other domestic nailmakers, filed a protest in November, charging that the Commerce Department was failing to enforce trade regulations that limit imports of Korean nails. Atlantic was joined in the protest by the Virginia Wire & Fabric Company and the Florida Wire & Nail Company.

During 1983, imports of Korean nails rose 43 percent over 1982 levels, and during the first nine months of this year Korean nail imports were up an additional 47 percent above 1983 levels, according to data taken from a report by the International Trade Commission. As a result, Korean manufacturers now produce 32.7 percent of the nails sold in the US, up from 27 percent just a year ago. Meanwhile, US producers' share of the domestic market has fallen from 29.4 to 23 percent, according to the protest filed with the Commerce Department.

At the same time, prices for Korean nails have been coming down sharply, Mr. Riley said. The low-priced imports are the chief reason that prices for US-made nails have fallen some 25 percent in recent months. While those cuts have been good news for consumers, they have forced domestic nailmakers to subsist on profits that have become so thin that they now threaten to prompt an industry shakeout.

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