Speak with Forked Tongue; Carry Large 2x4

The next time you meet a Canadian at a cocktail party and consider invoking fuzzy feelings of fraternity by toasting our countries’ recent softwood lumber accord, better to just smile, nod your head, and stare intently at your shoes.  Calling the U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement (2006) an “agreement” mocks the fact that the Canadians had no viable alternative but to sign on the dotted line.

One option was to endure the cost and uncertainty of continuous litigation, continued restrictions on their lumber exports, and the specter of never again seeing the $5.3 billion in duties collected illegally by U.S. Customs on previous exports.  The other option was for Canadians to agree to impose export restraints (in the form of export taxes or quotas) on their lumber and see the return of about 80 percent of that $5.3 billion.

The U.S.-Canada softwood lumber dispute dates back many decades, but the most recent spate of protection, rulings, and edicts relates to litigation that began in the early 1980s, evolved into the Softwood Lumber Agreement of 1996, and then produced new trade remedy cases and a string of litigation beginning in 2001, when SLA 1996 expired.  (This paper attempts to present a chronology of events—but the most recent events are not documented therein.)

Make no mistake: the United States is the villain in the lumber dispute. 

Its agencies administered the trade remedy laws illegally and when they were required to make amends, pursuant to the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, they refused.

In short, antidumping duties can be imposed if the petitioning industry is materially injured by reason of dumped imports; countervailing duties can be imposed if the petitioning industry is materially injured by reason of subsidized imports.  In 2002, the United States imposed both antidumping and countervailing duties on Canadian softwood, which prompted Canada to challenge those findings under NAFTA’s dispute settlement procedures.  The NAFTA panel found that the U.S. International Trade Commission failed to meet the legal threshold for finding injury, and that the Commerce Department failed to find, legally, dumping or countervailable subsidization.

Second, third, and fourth attempts by those agencies to render affirmative findings within the law were also found wanting by the NAFTA panel, which eventually ordered the agencies to revoke the measures.  The United States refused, and instead insisted that an agreement to limit Canadian lumber sales was the only way to resolve the issue.  By that point, U.S. Customs had collected about $5 billion on softwood imported from Canada pursuant to those illegal antidumping and countervailing duty measures.  The U.S. industry was insistent that those monies be distributed to them, as beneficiaries of the now-repealed Byrd Amendment.  The importers (and the Canadian producers to whom many were related) demanded that those duties be refunded promptly.

Well, an ugly compromise was struck in the form of the Softwood Lumber Agreement (2006).  Under its terms, the importers/producers will be refunded about 80 percent of their rightful $5.3 billion, and despite the illegality of the measures and the fact that the United States completely disregarded its NAFTA obligations, the domestic petitioners will keep about $500 million and the U.S. government (actually, the Bush administration—these funds will be outside the domain of congressional appropriators) will keep about $450 million to be used for “meritorious initiatives.”  Such initiatives will include low-income housing projects, disaster relief, and various other vote-purchasing endeavors.

Meanwhile, the days when you could just pick up the phone, dial your favorite Canadian lumber producer, and place an order for 100 pallets of 2x4s at $344 per thousand board feet are over.  No longer will the purchasing agents at Home Depot, True Value Hardware, Ryan Homes, and elsewhere be able to negotiate lumber volumes and prices based on quaint considerations like supply and demand.  Canadian lumber will be required to sell for a minimum of $345 per thousand board feet.  If prices dip below that level, Canadian exports will be subject to a combination of export taxes (ranging from 5 to 15 percent) and volume restrictions.  So yes, the agreement does allow freedom of lumber trade to reign, as long as the prices are high enough.  Once the benefits of trade go too far and actually provide cost savings for consumers, freedom will be reined in.

On so many different levels, U.S. actions and attitudes in the lumber dispute–and the interventionist outcome it produced–betray an administration that is only rhetorically commited to free trade.  And that can’t possibly ignite the embers of global trade liberalization.