Tag: antidumping

“Leveling the Playing Field Act” Hurts the Broader Economy

The Senate leadership is working hard to find the votes needed to support the trade agenda. Key to progress is passage of trade promotion authority (TPA), also known as “fast track”, which would commit Congress to vote up or down on a trade agreement rather than offering amendments. Opposition to trade liberalization has been a comfortable policy stance for senators beholden to organized labor and to the anti-growth left. Opponents on the right profess concern about the possible loss of national sovereignty and generally are reluctant to give President Obama greater authority of any kind.

Political realities sometimes require offering sweeteners to make a difficult vote more palatable. Trade adjustment assistance (TAA) has been legislated in the past to help workers and firms that are having difficulty dealing with competition from imports. Even though the economic and equity arguments in favor of trade-related unemployment benefits are relatively weak (Why treat people who are unemployed due to international competition differently than those who lose their jobs due to changes in technology, for instance?), the political rationale for TAA at times has been compelling. It’s not surprising that both the House and Senate have been searching for a way to pass both TPA and TAA. The president has expressed his preference to sign them at the same time.

With the outcome of the Senate vote on TPA not yet clear, it’s not surprising that there has been a search for additional sweeteners. The steel industry has pushed to include Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-OH) poorly named “Leveling the Playing Field Act” as part of the TAA package.  (My op-ed on the Act is available here.) Given the need to woo as many votes as possible, the Senate leadership has agreed to this request.

It’s not my intention to criticize pro-trade senators who are doing their best to pass TPA. Life can be complex, and political life all the more so. However, it may be worthwhile for free-trade proponents to think carefully about the implications of adding Sen. Brown’s measure as part of this effort to provide the president with negotiating authority.

Here’s the rub: the protectionist provisions of the “Leveling the Playing Field Act” would take effect as soon as the president signs the TAA legislation, but potential trade liberalization (if any ever gets enacted) would not be realized until sometime well in the future. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – the first agreement that might be concluded once the president has negotiating authority – would not begin to be implemented until 2017 at the earliest, perhaps much later. Although details of the agreement are not yet public, restrictions on politically sensitive imports are likely to be phased in over perhaps as many as 20 years. Thus, the United States would be making its antidumping/countervailing (AD/CVD) regime more protectionist immediately in exchange for future liberalization that may or may not ever occur.

If possible, Senate leaders should remove the Leveling the Playing Field Act from TAA and let adjustment assistance be considered on its own merits. If that isn’t feasible, the effective date of Sen. Brown’s legislation should be changed so that it does not become operational until the eventual implementing legislation for TPP also becomes effective. That way there will at least be some growth-promoting liberalization to help offset the reduced economic welfare caused by the Leveling the Playing Field Act.

Managing Sugar Markets Gets Even Messier

In a previous blog post I discussed the implications of the proposed agreement to settle the antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) cases brought by U.S. sugar producers against imports from Mexico.  That article amounted to a lament on the difficulties of trying to balance sugar supply and demand by government fiat.  Market managers employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Commerce (DOC) have a really hard job, as do their counterparts in the Mexican government.  Not only do the supply, demand, and price of sugar tend not to stay quiet and well behaved, but important firms involved in the business also can prove (from the perspective of the program managers) to be vexing and disputatious.

Such is the case with Imperial Sugar Company and AmCane Sugar, both of which are U.S. cane refiners that rely on ample supplies of raw sugar to run their operations.  Much of that raw sugar comes from other countries; in recent years Mexico has been the largest supplier to the United States.  It now appears that U.S. cane refiners were not too happy with either the original proposed settlement that was announced on October 27, 2014, or the final suspension agreements announced December 19 that set aside the underlying AD/CVD investigations. 

One source of that unhappiness seems to have been that the initial proposal would have allowed 60 percent of imports from Mexico to be in the form of refined sugar rather than raw.  The U.S. and Mexican governments acknowledged that concern in the December 19 agreement by reducing the allowable level of refined sugar imports to 53 percent.  Another issue bothering U.S. refiners likely was the relatively narrow spread between the original proposal’s import reference prices, which were 20.75 cents per pound for raw sugar and 23.75 cents per pound for refined.  U.S. refiners may have feared suppression of their processing margins, if imported refined sugar from Mexico could have been sold at only 3 cents per pound above the price of raw sugar imports.  The December 19 version increased that price spread to 3.75 cents (22.25 cents for raw and 26.0 cents for refined).  From the standpoint of the refiners, that margin still may be uncomfortably narrow.

Leveling the Playing Field?

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced a bill on Wednesday called the “Leveling the Playing Field Act.” According to the accompanying press release, the proposal would “restore strength to antidumping and countervailing duty laws” via a “crack down on unfair foreign competition.” The bill includes several provisions relating to practices used by the Department of Commerce to determine dumping and subsidy margins (i.e., the extent to which imported products are unfairly underpriced). It also contains modest changes to procedures used by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) in deciding whether domestic industries have been “materially injured” by imports.

Since I have had only indirect exposure to the role of Commerce in antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) investigations, I will leave analysis of those proposed changes to others. However, my 10 years of experience as chairman and commissioner at the ITC provide a reasonable basis for commenting on the bill’s suggested modifications to the injury determination.

The existing AD/CVD statutes instruct the ITC to “evaluate all relevant economic factors” that relate to the effects of imports on the industry under consideration. A number of those factors are specifically mentioned, including the industry’s profits. Not being satisfied with just having the commission examine profits in general, the Brown bill adds, “gross profits, operating profits, net profits, [and] ability to service debt.” As a practical matter, the commission already looks in detail at an industry’s profitability and its ability to repay debts, so this additional wording would contribute nothing of substance.

The Brown bill would add a provision to the effect that an improvement in the industry’s performance over the period of investigation (normally about three years) should not preclude a finding that the industry has been materially injured by imports. Yes, there can be circumstances in which an industry’s results are strengthening, yet it is still being held back by import competition. However, the commission’s existing practice already considers this possibility, so the new language would not really change anything.

The bill also adds a section addressing the possible effects of a recession on the ITC’s injury analysis. It states that the commission may extend its period of investigation to begin at least a year before the recession started, which would allow before and after comparisons of how the domestic industry has performed. The ITC already has authority to adjust the period of investigation under special circumstances, but it relatively seldom does so.

U.S.-Mexico Sugar Agreement: A Tribute to Managed Markets

The U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) announced Oct. 27 that it had reached draft agreements with Mexican sugar exporters and the Mexican government to suspend antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) investigations on imports of sugar from that country.  Commerce has requested comments from interested parties by Nov. 10, with Nov. 26 indicated as the earliest date on which the final agreements could be signed.  Given the obvious level of consultation by governments and industries on both sides of the border leading up to this announcement, it’s reasonable to presume that the agreements will enter into effect within a few weeks.

Suspension agreements that set aside the AD/CVD process in favor of a managed-trade arrangement are relatively rare.  They sometimes are negotiated when the U.S. market requires some quantity of imports, and when the implementation of high AD/CVD duties would be expected to curtail trade severely.  This would have been the case, assuming the duties actually had entered into effect.  However, as this recent blog post indicates, it’s not at all clear that the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) would have determined that imports from Mexico were injuring the U.S. industry.  A negative vote (a vote finding no injury) by the ITC would have ended these cases and left the U.S. market open to imports of Mexican sugar. 

What are the key provisions of the agreements?  There are restrictions on both the price and quantity of imports from Mexico.  Sugar will only be allowed to be imported into the United States if it is priced above certain levels:  20.75 cents per pound (at the plant in Mexico) for raw sugar, and 23.75 cents per pound for refined sugar.  (For comparison, U.S. and world prices for raw sugar currently are about 26 cents and 16 cents, respectively; for refined sugar about 37 cents and 19 cents.)  Additional price controls on individual Mexican exporters based on their alleged prior dumping (selling at a price the DOC determines to be less than fair value) will further raise the prices at which they will be allowed to sell.

Managed Trade for Sugar from Mexico?

Mexican Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo was in Washington this week arguing on behalf of an agreement to suspend the U.S. antidumping/countervailing duty (AD/CVD) investigation against imports of sugar from Mexico.  The case will soon enter its final phase, with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) expected to determine early next year whether the U.S. sugar industry has been injured by imports from Mexico. 

In the context of North American sugar politics, an agreement to suspend the AD/CVD process and implement a managed-trade arrangement makes some sense.  Both U.S. and Mexican sugar industries already are more or less wards of the state, or at least are very heavily guided and controlled by their respective governments.  Both governments have given indications that they are interested in settling this dispute.  The history of bilateral sugar trade has been dominated by government intervention rather than by free-market economics.  It seems almost natural to take the next obvious step by allowing Mexican sugar to enter the United States only under terms of a suspension agreement (i.e., with the quantity limited or the price set high).

It’s worth mentioning that Mexican sugar growers are the only ones in the world currently allowed to sell as much sugar as they wish in the U.S. marketplace.  Even U.S. growers are not permitted to do so.  Years ago they gave up that right in exchange for retaining an almost embarrassingly high level of price support.  That strong price incentive was inducing them to grow more sugar than the market could absorb.  Under the provisions of the U.S. sugar program, that excess sugar could end up being owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at considerable expense to taxpayers.  So U.S. sugar growers made the decision to sell less sugar, but keep the price high.

Mexican growers, on the other hand, obtained unfettered access to the U.S. market in 2008. That followed a contentious period of bilateral trade in sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) dating to 1994, which was when the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) began to be implemented.  In a nutshell, the United States adopted a much more restrictive approach to imports of Mexican sugar than Mexico thought had been negotiated, and the Mexicans reciprocated regarding imports of HFCS. 

Given that historic context, the open access to the U.S. market enjoyed by the Mexicans since 2008 seems to be rather an anomaly.  Why not go back to the good old days of closely managed trade? 

U.S. Trade Policy Attacks U.S. Energy Policy, Both Hurting

First there were oil and gas export restrictions, then pipeline injunctions, now import restrictions on the steel needed for exploration and extraction.  Washington is coming from all angles to kneecap the energy boom sparked by the horizontal drilling and fracking revolutions – a once in a generation supply-side shock, which otherwise promises to attract a flood of foreign investment and serve as a wellspring of economic growth and job creation.
 
The most recent assault on our “All of the Above” energy policy comes via our fantastically self-destructive trade policy. Last Friday, in a final antidumping determination, the U.S. Department of Commerce found exporters from nine countries to be dumping “Oil Country Tubular Goods” (OCTG) – a class of steel products used primarily in oil and gas well projects – in the U.S. market. The most important foreign source of OCTG in the case was South Korea, whose exporters were found NOT to be dumping in the preliminary determination issued back in February.
 
But in the intervening months, the U.S. steel industry and the Congressional Steel Caucus impressed upon the bean counters at Commerce that the methodology they used for the Korean preliminary determination was inferior to an alterative they favored.  Without getting too into the weeds here, as tends to happen when exposing the dishonesty of the antidumping regime, suffice it to say that the revision from 0% dumping margins to 10%-16% for Korean exporters was primarily the result of Commerce changing its estimate of what the home market profit rate “should be.”
 
For the preliminary determination, that estimate was based on Korean OCTG producers’ experiences (with OCTG and other products).  For the final determination, Commerce changed its estimate to one based on a University of Iowa graduate student’s estimation of the profit experience of a single Argentine OCTG producer named Tenaris.  That’s right!  The cost of steel for U.S. oil well projects will rise – maybe 16% – because some student was messing around with @functions on Microsoft Excel.
 

WTO Indictment of Chinese Export Restrictions Unearths U.S. Hypocrisy

Last week a WTO dispute settlement panel ruled that certain Chinese restrictions on exports of “rare earth” minerals are inconsistent with China’s WTO obligations and recommended that the PRC government bring its policies into compliance with the rules. The decision was hardly surprising, as export restrictions are prohibited under the WTO agreements – except under certain limited circumstances, which were not demonstrated to exist.

Formal complaints about these export restrictions were lodged in the WTO by the United States, the European Union, and Japan, whose manufacturers require rare earth minerals for production of a variety of high tech products, including flat-screen televisions, smart phones, and hybrid automobile batteries. By restricting exports, the complainants alleged, China’s actions reduce supply and raise prices abroad, putting foreign downstream manufacturers at a disadvantage vis-à-vis China’s domestic rare earth-using companies, who enjoy the effective subsidies of greater supply and lower input prices.

The WTO decision was lauded across Washington, but more for its dig on China than for its basis in principle or sound economics. Emblematic of official sentiment was the following statement from arch-import-foe-temporarily-turned-globalization-advocate, House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI):

Through the aggressive efforts of the Obama Administration, the WTO has struck down China’s efforts to block our companies from having access to key inputs.  Our high-tech industries, from smartphones to medical equipment to wind turbines, depend on access to these rare earths and other chemicals. Holding China accountable, and enforcing the rules of international trade are vital to U.S. businesses and workers and key to trade expansion efforts (emphasis added).

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