Expert testimony: What passes for fireworks in $2.2 billion U.S. Steel trial

Was it a loan or investment when U.S. Steel bought the former Stelco plants in Hamilton and Lake Erie? Court resumes Wednesday on that question.

Court hearings on $2.2 billion claim part of overall restructuring process for U.S. Steel Canada

The court hearing this week will determine U.S. Steel's claim to $2.2 billion from its former Canadian arm. The result could impact pensions and benefits. (John Rieti/CBC)

There's the overarching question of whether U.S. Steel is right in claiming that $2.2 billion it injected in its former Canadian arm should be counted as debt, not equity.

And then, zoomed way in, there are fine levels of details about what the company and its Canadian plants did, intended and didn't do regarding money being sent back and forth between the parent and the subsidiary after U.S. Steel bought the former Stelco in 2007.

That zoomed-in place is where lawyers for U.S. Steel and steelworkers and the province spent more than four hours on Wednesday, examining and cross-examining two expert witnesses in financial economics.

If fireworks exist in this kind of expert evaluation of a company's financial history, perhaps this is how they play out: Neither witness agreed with the other's conclusion. But there were no Perry Mason antics or colourful outbursts. At most, each said a simple "no" when asked if they agreed with the other.

The hearings were the third day in a series of at least six expected to stretch into next week.

A finding that the loans are debt would place U.S. Steel first in line in the Canadian operation's bankruptcy proceeding, which steelworkers and the province fear could have an adverse impact on the company's ability to pay pensions and other obligations.

There was little said Wednesday to clear up that question.

'A question of how much they'd be able to borrow'

With expertise as a commercial lender, witness Brad Hall opined that there was no way a third-party bank would have looked at the former Stelco's performance and granted the kind or amount of loan that U.S. Steel sent its Canadian operations in 2007. His expertise was brought into the hearing by the province's attorney Peter Ruby.

But witness Yvette Austin Smith, hired by U.S. Steel, said what was more important to determine the Canadian arms' credit-worthiness was not its past performance as Stelco, but rather its brighter future as a wholly-owned subsidiary.

"I think it's more a question of how much they'd be able to borrow and at what terms, not whether it'd have been able to borrow at all," she said.

Much of the hearing focused on the intent of either the parent or the subsidiary as the money was exchanged. For example, when U.S. Steel waived interest payments on the initial loan granted in 2007, did that suggest the company was treating its money as an equity investment?

Hall argued it did. But Austin Smith said it was a form of negotiation with the embattled Canadian operations on a "distressed" loan, a way to try to keep them afloat. The American company, she says in a court filing, "is pursuing the ultimate remedy of any creditor" in making its claim to $2.2 billion.

Court is scheduled to continue on Thursday.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.