Tag: mexican

You Say Tomato and I Say Tomate; Let’s Call this Whole Antidumping Racket Off

Last month, on the day the president was addressing audiences in the auto-parts-factory-rich state of Ohio, the administration filed a formal trade complaint before the World Trade Organization alleging that China is subsidizing exports of automobile parts.

Last week, at the request of domestic tomato producers operating preponderantly in the state of Florida, the Commerce Department agreed to terminate a 4-year-old agreement, which has allowed tomatoes from Mexico to be sold in the United States under certain minimum price conditions.

Of course it would be cynical to believe that these actions have anything to do with an incumbent candidate wielding Executive branch authorities to curry favor with special interests in major swing states before an election. So let’s make this latest episode a teaching moment about the perils of the antidumping status quo.

The long-standing – but vaguely understood – “trade agreement” between the United States and Mexico that was terminated last week was an agreement between Mexican tomato producers and the U.S. Department of Commerce to “suspend” an antidumping investigation that had been initiated at the request of U.S. tomato producers back in 1996. At the time, U.S. producers alleged that they were being materially injured by reason of tomatoes imported from Mexico and sold at “less than fair value.” The U.S. International Trade Commission agreed, preliminarily, on the issue of injury and the Commerce Department had calculated that the Mexicans were, in fact, dumping – selling in the United States at prices below “fair value.” (Here and here are two of many Cato exposés of what passes for objective administration of the antidumping law at the Commerce Department.)

But instead of carrying the investigation through to the final stage which likely would have included the imposition of duties, a “suspension agreement” was reached under which the Commerce Department would suspend the antidumping investigation if the Mexicans agreed to certain terms – most importantly, that they sell their tomatoes above a minimum benchmark price.  Understanding why the parties would agree to suspend an investigation – and why there are only seven suspension agreements among 240 active antidumping measures – is important to understanding one of the most anti-consumer, anti-competitive aspects of the U.S. antidumping law.

In an antidumping investigation, the Commerce Department calculates a dumping “margin,” which is purported to be the average difference between the foreign producer’s home market prices and his U.S. prices of the same or similar merchandise sold contemporaneously, allocated over the average value of the producer’s U.S. sales, which yields an ad valorem antidumping duty rate. That rate is then applied to the value of imports, as they enter Customs, to calculate the amount of duty “deposits” owed by the importer.

So, if a Mexican tomato producer’s rate has been calculated to be 14.6% and the value of a container of tomatoes from that producer is $100,000, then U.S. Customs will require the U.S. importer of those tomatoes to post a deposit of $14,600. Why is it called a deposit? Because the final duty liability to the importer is still unknown at the time of entry. The 14.6% is an estimate of the current rate of dumping based on sales comparisons from the previous year. But the actual rate of dumping for the current period – and, thus, the actual cost of importing tomatoes from Mexico – is unknown until completion of an “administrative review” of the current period’s sales by the Commerce Department, which occurs after the period is over.

In other words, because of the unique retrospective nature of the U.S. antidumping law, importers DO NOT KNOW the amount of antidumping duties they will ultimately have to pay until well after the subject products have been imported and sold in the United States. The final liability might be larger, much larger, smaller, or much smaller than the deposit. If smaller, the importer gets a refund with interest. If larger, the importer owes the difference plus interest.

How many business ventures would be started – or even qualify for a loan – with so much uncertainty about its operating costs? Imagine your local supermarket operating on the same principles. Imagine ringing up your basket-full of groceries, paying $122.45, and then waiting a year to find out whether you get a rebate or have to issue a supplemental check. Gamblers might enjoy the thrill, but this kind of uncertainty is anathema to business. Most grocery shoppers would buy their groceries somewhere else, where the prices are final.  Likewise, importers and other businesses in the supply chain are likely to stop doing business altogether with exporters who are subject to antidumping measures.

Such is the consequence of our ”retrospective” antidumping system. Every other major country that has an antidumping law has a “prospective” system, whereunder the duties assessed upon importation are final.  And this brings us back to Mexican tomatoes.

The suspension agreement terminated last week had been in effect since 2008 and required Mexican producers to sell their tomatoes at prices above $0.17 per pound between July 1 and October 22 and above $0.22 per pound between October 23 and June 30.  (That agreement was actually the third suspension agreement governing the terms of Mexican tomato sales in the United States since 1996.  The previous two were terminated at the request of the Mexican producers, presumably because market conditions had changed, and they were seeking better terms.)

The advantage of a suspension agreement is that it brings a degree of certainty – even if prices are higher.  It would be collusion but for the fact that the deal is struck between foreign producers and the Commerce Department and not between foreign producers and U.S. producers.  Occasionally, domestic producers desire certainty because its always possible that antidumping rates will decline in subsequent years. But foreign producers are more inclined to covet the certainty of a suspension agreement because the uncertainty that would otherwise confront their customers – U.S. importers – is often enough to chase them away entirely. And that helps explain the dearth of suspension agreements.

The retrospective nature of the U.S. law is just another example of how the antidumping regime is punitive and not remedial.

Mexican Retaliation for U.S. Truck Ban is Proper

The Mexican government announced yesterday that it will expand the list of U.S. products subject to punitive import duties in retaliation for a brazen, 15-year-long refusal of the United States to honor its NAFTA commitment to allow Mexican long-haul trucks to compete in the U.S. market.  Given continued U.S. intransigence on the issue, Mexico’s decision is understandable, if not laudable.

The dispute is not very complicated.  Under the terms of the deal, Mexican trucks were to have been able to compete in U.S. border states by 1995, and throughout the United States by 2000.  But President Clinton, at the behest of the Teamsters union, suspended implementation of the trucking provision on the grounds that Mexican trucks weren’t safe enough for U.S. highways.

By 1998, the Mexicans had had enough, and brought a formal complaint under the NAFTA dispute settlement system, and in 2001, prevailed with a unanimous panel decision that found the United States in violation of the agreement, and ruled that Mexican trucks meeting U.S. safety standards had to be given access to the U.S. market.

In response to the NAFTA decision, Congress stipulated 22 safety requirements that Mexican trucks had to satisfy in order to gain access to the U.S. market.  But before the U.S. Department of Transportation could grant any permits to Mexican truckers, in 2002, environmental and labor groups filed a lawsuit to block implementation on the grounds that the regulations violated U.S. environmental law.

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down the truck ban, and soon after a government pilot program was developed to allow a limited number of Mexican trucks to serve the U.S. market.  But funding for the pilot program was cut off by a Teamsters-friendly Congress in 2008, which effectively put the U.S. market off limits to Mexican trucks once again—and the United States squarely in violation of its NAFTA obligations, again.

In August 2009, after it became apparent that the administration and Congress preferred the economic cost of the trucking ban to the political cost of crossing the Teamsters, the Mexican government tried to change the equation by imposing $2.4 billion in retaliatory duties on about 90 U.S. products.  A Mexican trucking association also filed a $6-billion lawsuit against the U.S. government.

But with no discernible progress toward resolution over the past year, the Mexican government announced yesterday that it will expand the list of U.S. products subject to punitive, retaliatory duties in an effort to convince Congress and the administration to finally live up to America’s word.

The Mexican government is right to retaliate—and to expand the list of products subject to punitive duties.  Of course, retaliation hurts innocents, like U.S. businesses and workers, and Mexican businesses and consumers, who have nothing to do with the central dispute.  And it increases the amount of red tape and the role of governments in international trade.  But retaliation—when authorized by agreement and properly targeted—can also be an effective tool in promoting trade liberalization, reducing red tape, and diminishing the impositions of government.

It is by changing the political calculus that retaliation can be effective.  Thus far, U.S. politicians have found the economic costs of the Mexican trucking ban and the retaliation to be tolerable (for themselves)—at least relative to the expected political costs from doing the right thing by ending the ban.  By expanding the list to include other products, like oranges, the Mexicans hope to impress upon other U.S. interests, like the citrus industry in a very important swing state, that they have dogs in this fight as well.

Between the rising costs on the economic side of the equation and the diminishing political benefits on the other, support among politicians for the truck ban should dissipate.

The Obama administration’s failure to connect the dots is surprising.  Its fealty to the Teamsters directly undermines the lofty goals of its National Export Initiative—which seeks to double U.S. exports in five years.  On trade policy, the administration appears yet to fully grasp that the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone, the knee bone’s connected to the ankle bone, etc.  When you restrict imports (in the immediate case, imports of Mexican trucking services), you restrict exports.

The rising economic and political costs of the truck ban suggest that something’s going to have to give soon.  By amplifying the stakes, the Mexicans are right to hasten that day.