Tag: tariff

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.

Solar Panels Trade Case Mocks Washington’s Ways

Later today the U.S. Department of Commerce is expected to announce preliminary antidumping duties on solar panels from China. This case might normally be met with an exasperated sigh and chalked up as just another example of myopic, self-flagellating, capricious U.S. antidumping policy toward China.

But in this instance the absurdity is magnified by the fact that Washington has already devoted billions of dollars in production subsidies and consumption tax credits in an effort to invent a non-trivial market for solar energy in the United States.  Imposing duties only undermines that objective. With brand new levies on imports to add to the duties already being imposed on the same products to “countervail” the lower prices afforded U.S. consumers by the Chinese government’s production subsidies, the administration’s already-expensive mission will become even more so – perhaps prohibitively so.

It’s not that President Obama and the Congress woke up one morning and agreed to craft policies that simultaneously promote and deter U.S. solar energy consumption. But that’s what Washington – with its meddling ethos and self-righteous politicians – has wrought: policies working at cross-purposes.

The Economic Report of the President in 2010 (published before Solyndra became a household name) boasts of the administration’s tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for production and tax credits for consumption of solar panels. This industrial policy continues to this day and there is no greater cheerleader for solar than the president himself. In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama said:

I’m directing my administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.

One month later, noting that 16 solar projects have been approved on public land since he took office, the president said:

[Solar] is an industry on the rise. It’s a source of energy that’s becoming cheaper. And more and more businesses are starting to take notice.

The president has couched his support for solar in terms of what he sees as the environmental imperative of reducing carbon emissions and slowing global warming. Thus his policy aim is to encourage consumption by making solar less expensive to retail consumers with production subsidies and consumption tax credits. (Of course, lower-cost solar is a mirage – accounting smoke and mirrors – because the subsidies come from current taxpayers and the tax credits deprive the Treasury of revenues already earmarked, forcing the government to borrow, burdening future taxpayers with principle and interest debt, which is paid with higher taxes down the road).

However, the president also sees solar and other green technologies as industries that will create great value, spawn new ideas and technologies, keep the United States at the top of the global value chain, and serve as reliable jobs creators going forward. And he seems to think that realization of that objective requires his running interference on behalf of U.S. producers.  He says:

Countries like China are moving even faster… . I’m not going to settle for a situation where the United States comes in second place or third place or fourth place in what will be the most important economic engine in the future.

There is nothing incompatible about holding the simultanous beliefs that greater use of solar power could reduce carbon emissions and that a solar industry has great potential to spur innovation, create value, and support good-paying jobs.  But promoting the realization of both premises simultaneously through policy intervention is a fools errand, and we are caught in its midst.

Efforts to protect and nurture these chosen industries by keeping foreign competitors at bay is incompatible with the president’s environmentally-driven objective of increasing retail demand for solar energy.  Intervening to reduce the supply of solar panels will cause prices to rise and rising prices (particularly in light of abundant cheap alternatives like natural gas) will cause demand to fall.  Sure, we may be left with some protected producers in the short-run, but how will they endure without customers.

That question is, apparently, far from minds of perennial interventionist Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and arch-protectionist Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).  Just this week, the duo released a proposal that would make ineligible for the 30% tax credit, solar panels made outside of the United States, claiming that “Chinese solar panel producers’ eligibility for tax credit undercuts Amercian companies and jobs.”  The senators should tell that to the American business owners and employees in the much larger and more economically significant downstream industries that install and service solar panels in the United States.  The proposal would cause a dramtic increase in the retail price of solar panels and imperil livelihoods in these downstream industries.

This Cato video should be required viewing for Washington’s meddling policymakers.

Trade Adjustment Assistance Bill Pulled

In the face of a likely loss, the House Republican leadership pulled a trade bill from consideration late yesterday afternoon rather than face yet another embarrassing defeat. CQ has the details [$].

The bill would have reauthorized the Andean Trade Preference Act, which gives specific tariff reductions on certain products from Andean countries, for a further six months. Hardly the sort of significant trade liberalization that would justify passing the other part of the bill – a $2.4 billion per year extention of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, about which I blogged on Friday. Stay tuned, because unfortunately I doubt we’ve heard the last of this program.

What the 2010 Election Will Mean for Trade

One of the many implications of yesterday’s election is that the new Congress will likely be more friendly toward trade-expanding agreements and less inclined to raise trade barriers.

Trade was not a deciding factor in the election, despite efforts by a number of incumbent Democrats to make it so. Many House and Senate contests were peppered with ads accusing an opponent of favoring trade agreements that gave away U.S. jobs to China. It was a stock line in President Obama’s stump speeches that Republicans favored tax breaks for U.S. companies that ship jobs overseas (a charge I dismantled in an op-ed last week). Yet on Election Day the trade-skeptical rhetoric and ads did not save Democratic seats.

Republicans Pat Toomey, Rob Portman, and Mark Kirk all won Senate seats in the industrial heartland yesterday (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, respectively) and all three voted in favor of major trade agreements during their time in the U.S. House. None of them ran away from their records on trade.

The key change for trade policy will be the switch of the House to Republican control in January. Democratic House leaders were generally hostile to trade agreements during their four-year tenure, refusing to allow a vote on the Colombia trade agreement in 2008 even after President Bush submitted it to Congress while allowing a vote this fall on a bill to raise tariffs against imports from China.

In contrast, the incoming GOP House leaders, presumptive Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, and Ways and Means Committee Chair David Camp of Michigan, have all voted more than two-thirds of the time for lower trade barriers, according to Cato’s trade vote data base. The trade-hostile influence of organized labor, so prominent the past four years, will be greatly diminished.

The new Congress will be more likely to consider and pass pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. The Obama administration has endorsed all three in the abstract, but has done little to actually push Congress to approve them. These three agreements offer an opportunity for the White House to work with the new Congress in a bipartisan way to promote exports and deepen ties with friendly nations.

The news is not all positive on the trade front. A more Republican-weighted Congress will probably not be much different when it comes to rewriting the farm bill in 2012. Republicans have shown themselves to be similar to Democrats in supporting subsidies and trade barriers to benefit certain farm sectors such as sugar, rice, cotton, and corn. And Republicans are far more inclined that Democrats to support the failed, 50-year-old trade and travel embargo against Cuba.

India Explicitly Rejects Bringing Environmental Issues Into WTO

An article today in BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest (What? You don’t subscribe??) contains an explicit rejection by India’s trade minister of the idea that carbon border tax adjustments belong in the WTO’s agenda.  Border tax adjustments in this context refers to de facto tariffs that would “level the playing field” for domestic producers competing with foreign producers not subject to climate change policies of an equivalent rigour, also called “border carbon adjustments” or variations on that theme.

While Minister Khullar predicts that these sorts of measures will be in place in 2-3 years time, he rejects that the WTO is the forum to deal with environmental issues.

Furthermore, countries introducing such measures can expect litigation:

India and other developing countries will undoubtedly challenge the true impetus behind the [border carbon adjustment] measures.

“Such measures imposing restrictions on imports on the grounds of providing a ‘level playing field’, or maintaining the ‘competitiveness’ of the domestic industry, etc are likely to be viewed as mere protectionist measures by the developed world to block the exports of the poorer nations,” [a recent report from an Indian think-tank closely connected with the Indian government] reads. “This is because there is little empirical evidence that companies relocate to take advantage of lax pollution controls.”

The [report] argues that such unilateral trade measures will inevitably lead to tit-for-tat trade retaliation that could spiral into an all-out trade war. Such warnings have also been raised by China and several think tanks following the issue.

I’ve written before on the dangers of introducing climate change issues into the WTO (and Dan Griswold has written more broadly on why labor and environmental standards don’t mix well with the aim of freeing trade) but this is yet another firm, unequivocal warning to developed countries that their proposals (and they are still just proposals at this stage) will have consequences. Developed country politicians who insist on forcing rich-world standards on the poor world should listen carefully.

Someone in Europe Is Talking Sense on Carbon Tariffs

The nominee for EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht has taken the brave step of opposing carbon tariffs, called for by many European politicians (including, notably, French President Nicolas Sarkozy).

In the first day of his confirmation hearings, Mr. de Gucht expressed concern that carbon tariffs were a possible first step in a “trade war” and implied that they were in any event inconsistent with current trade law. (I agree.) He also called for abolishing tariffs on goods beneficial to the environment as a trade-friendly way to reduce greenhouse gases, and expressed support for the Doha round of multilateral trade talks. (More here.) While the Trade Commissioner’s influence over actual trade policy in the EU is arguably limited, it is good to have someone in the post who is instinctively suspicious of green protectionism and friendly towards the WTO.

The European Parliament is due to vote on the European Commission nominees (en masse) on January 26.

New Paper: Why Sustainability Standards for Biofuel Production Make Little Economic Sense

The U.S. sustainability standard currently requires ethanol production to emit at least 20% less CO2 than the gasoline it is assumed to replace. In a new study, authors Harry de Gorter and David R. Just argue that sustainability standards for ethanol are, by definition, illogical and ineffective. Moreover, say de Gorter and Just, those standards divert attention from the contradictions and inefficiencies of ethanol import tariffs, tax credits, mandates, and subsidies, all of which exist whether ethanol is sustainable or not.