Tag: NAFTA

In the USMCA Ratification Battle, A Big Tariff Fight Is Brewing

For those of us who support the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the renegotiation process had us at the edge of our seats each day.  Would the three parties be able to reach agreement? If not, would the Trump administration try to withdraw from NAFTA? And if so, would Congress act to stop the withdrawal? When the newly minted U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was signed last November, there was a brief reprieve from the stressful, high-stakes negotiations.

That break is now over. The U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) released its independent assessment of the economic impact of the USMCA, a procedural step that clears the way for Congress to take up debate on ratification of the deal. That debate looks like it will be acrimonious, as leaders of both parties have been pushing the Trump administration with specific demands in exchange for supporting USMCA.

Democrats have already aired a number of concerns over the new agreement, particularly with regard to labor enforcement, but their specific demands are a bit vague, and vary a bit depending on which Democrat you talk to.

But now the Republicans are weighing in, and the biggest battle over the ratification of USMCA may come from the president’s own party. And in terms of trade liberalization, it is a particularly important one, because it involves removing tariffs (the USMCA itself does not have much impact on tariffs, as NAFTA has removed virtually all of them on trade between the three parties). Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) called on President Trump to lift the Section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico, declaring, “If these tariffs aren’t lifted, USMCA is dead. There is no appetite in Congress to debate USMCA with these tariffs in place.” In essence, Grassley is making his support for USMCA conditional on the removal of these tariffs. Grassley’s threat should be taken seriously, not least because he serves as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which gives him the power to indefinitely delay putting USMCA up for a vote in the Senate.

Beyond the politics, his proposal just makes a lot of sense. A report from the Peterson Institute describes the impact of steel tariffs in this way:

Calculations show that Trump’s tariffs raise the price of steel products by nearly 9 percent. Higher steel prices will raise the pre-tax earnings of steel firms by $2.4 billion in 2018. But they will also push up costs for steel users by $5.6 billion. Yes, these actions create 8,700 jobs in the US steel industry. Yet for each new job, steel firms will earn $270,000 of additional pre-tax profits. And steel users will pay an extra $650,000 for each job created.

Essentially, while a few steel producers have benefitted from the tariffs, the tab is being picked up by everybody else who has to buy steel. A part of that cost is ultimately paid by the consumer. As a result, the overall impact of the tariffs on the U.S. economy is negative.

Furthermore, it makes little sense that these tariffs are being maintained on our closest trading partners, especially after they negotiated in good faith to address many U.S. concerns with NAFTA. During the NAFTA negotiations, the issue of steel and aluminum tariffs lingered like a dark cloud overhead. Both the Canadian and Mexican delegations were under the impression that the 232 tariffs would be lifted once the agreement was signed. That, however, did not end up being the case. These tariffs are still in place, and as a result, Canada and Mexico have placed retaliatory tariffs on the United States. These retaliatory tariffs have resulted in a decrease in U.S. exports to Canada by 25% and to Mexico by 10% since they have been in effect. Lifting the 232 tariffs on Canada and Mexico will minimize any further harm on both sides of our borders.

One important point to keep in mind, however, is that tariffs could be replaced by quotas, as was the case for the Section 232 tariffs on South Korea and a couple of other countries. Quotas can actually be worse than tariffs in terms of their impact. Thus, Senator Grassley and his colleagues should demand that the removal of the Section 232 import restrictions be complete and total: No tariffs, no quotas, no nothin’.

The ball is now in President Trump’s court. In the past, he has called himself a “Tariff Man,” but the negative impact of the tariffs imposed so far should illuminate the benefits of open markets. By firing this shot in the USMCA ratification battle, Grassley has made the choice before Trump abundantly clear: support the passage of the deal by delivering on his promise of being a great dealmaker, or stay the Tariff Man. The path he chooses will be an important signal for ongoing and future trade negotiations the administration undertakes. Most importantly, it will provide clarity as to whether the administration simply sees tariffs as a tool to negotiate better deals, or whether tariffs are an end in themselves. We await the response.

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U.S. Trade Policy Agenda in 2019? Fixing What’s Been Breaking Since January 20, 2017

Upon taking office in 2017, President Trump accused trade partners of underhandedness, demonized U.S. companies with foreign supply chains, and perpetuated the false narrative that trade is a zero-sum game requiring an “America First” agenda. He withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened to pull out of North American Free Trade Agreement and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and initiated a war of attrition against the World Trade Organization by refusing to endorse any new Appellate Body judges until his unspecified demands were met. Yet, those were still the halcyon days of trade.

In 2018, straining all credulity, the Trump administration dusted off a seldom-used law (Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962) to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from most countries on the basis that national security is threatened by U.S. dependence on foreign sources of these widely available commodities.

Later in the year, invoking another controversial U.S. trade statute (Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974), which is widely considered an act of vigilantism under WTO rules, the administration announced tariffs on $50 billion worth of imports from China for alleged unfair practices, such as forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft. When Beijing retaliated with tariffs on U.S. agricultural products, Trump announced that he would hit another $200 billion of imports from China with tariffs. Once again, Beijing responded by broadening its list of targeted U.S. products and the president subsequently threatened to apply U.S. levies to all imports from China (over $500 billion in 2017).

To be fair, U.S. trade policy in 2018 wasn’t only rancor, hostage-taking, and trade war. Juxtaposed against this contentious, grievance-based, enforcement-oriented U.S. posture was some “trade liberalization.” Instead of withdrawing from NAFTA and KORUS, the Trump administration renegotiated both. Both included some liberalizing provisions, but also some lamentable, protectionist retrogression, which wasn’t totally unexpected given that, in both cases, U.S. insistence on renegotiation was motivated less by an interest in updating, expanding, and modernizing the agreements than by a desire to revise provisions that would—at least nominally—tilt the playing field in favor of U.S. workers and certain manufacturers.

As 2019 begins, five major issues cast long shadows over the trade policy landscape. First is whether and how the U.S.-China trade war will be contained, scaled back, and ultimately ended. Second is the looming possibility that the Trump administration will invoke national security to impose sweeping new tariffs on automobile imports. Third is the question of whether and when Congress will pass the implementing legislation for the new NAFTA (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA). Fourth is whether, when, and how the crisis at the WTO will be resolved. And fifth concerns whether the Trump administration has the wherewithal to make good on its stated intentions of negotiating new trade agreements with Japan, the European Union, the Philippines, possibly the United Kingdom, and other countries. With much of the rest of the world moving forward with a slew of new trade agreements and the United States stuck on revamping old deals, the real and opportunity costs to U.S. businesses, consumers, and taxpayers continue to mount.

Throughout the year ahead, these major issues will be the predominant focus of the research and writing of the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.

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NAFTA 2.0: The Best Trade Agreement Ever Negotiated (Except for All of the Others)

The text of the new “United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement” was released last Sunday night, a few hours after I had spoken at an event in Birmingham, England about the virtues of “The Ideal U.S.-U.K. Free Trade Agreement.” To borrow from the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen: I know the ideal free trade agreement; USCMA, you’re no ideal free trade agreement.

The ideal free trade agreement is one which accomplishes maximum market barrier reduction, enables maximum market integration, forecloses governments’ access to discriminatory protectionism, and obligates the parties to refrain from backsliding.

As explained in the paper:

The ideal free trade agreement provides for the elimination of tariffs as quickly as possible on as many goods as possible and to the lowest levels possible. It should limit the use of so-called trade remedy or trade defense measures. It should open all government procurement markets to goods and services providers from the other party. It should open all sectors of the economy to investment from businesses and individuals in the other party. It should open all services markets without exception to competition from providers of the other party. It should ensure that the rules that determine whether products and services are originating (meaning that they come from one or more of the agreement’s parties) are not so restrictive that they limit the scope for supply chain innovations…

…[T]he ideal FTA must also include rules governing e-commerce. Digital trade — data flows that are essential components in the provision of goods and services in the 21st century — must remain untaxed and protected from misuse and abuse. Rules that prohibit governments from imposing localization requirements or any particular data architectures that reduce the efficacy of digital services should be included, and obligations should be imposed on entities to ensure data privacy, consistent with the requirement that data flow as smoothly as possible.

When border barriers come down, the potentially protectionist aspects of regulation and regulatory regimes become more evident. Certainly, when businesses have to comply with two sets of regulations to sell in two different markets, it limits their capacity to realize economies of scale and reduces their capacity to pass on cost savings in the form of lower prices or reinvestment.

If those regulations are comparable when it comes to achieving the same social outcomes — consumer safety, product reliability, worker safety, environmental friendliness — there may be scope to require businesses to comply with only one set. A regulatory cooperation mechanism to promote mutual recognition would be a useful innovation, as a means to reducing business costs (provided no deep cultural aversion or science-based reason exists for considering one regulation better than the other and worth the greater cost).

Finally, the rules of the ideal FTA must be enforceable. What’s the point of a trade agreement if its terms are just suggestions? To make sure governments keep their promises, trade agreements should have a binding and enforceable dispute settlement mechanism, to ensure that the agreement is followed.

Here’s how the USMCA stacks up to the ideal free trade agreement, which:

  • Would provide for the elimination of tariffs as quickly as possible on as many goods as possible and to the lowest levels possible.

In USMCA, most goods trade will continue to be tariff-free (the NAFTA status quo) under the new agreement, and barriers to certain agricultural products will be reduced as well. Moreover, the value thresholds for importing goods without having to pay any duties have been raised in Mexico and Canada, which will benefit small businesses, disproportionately, as they tend to conduct a larger share of transactions online.

(Conclusion: Criterion is almost met).

  • Would limit the use of so-called trade remedy or trade defense measures.

Trade remedy laws give domestic industries recourse to trade restrictions when they can demonstrate injury caused by “dumped,” subsidized, or substantially increasing imports. These laws are prone to misuse and abuse and become loopholes through which the benefits of trade barrier reduction achieved in the agreement can be quickly rescinded.  

In USMCA, no restrictions on the use of antidumping, countervailing duty, or safeguard measures are made. Rather, the long arm of the Safeguard law extends further under the revised deal by making it more difficult for Canadian and Mexican exporters to be excused from prospective safeguard tariffs. Moreover, the failure of the United States agreeing to blanket exemptions for Canada and Mexico from prospective tariffs on imported automobiles under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 and the failure of the United States to remove the existing Section 232 tariffs on Canadian and Mexican aluminum and steel—thereby enshrining the view of Canada and Mexico as threats to U.S. national security—is in extremely poor taste, violates the spirit of a trade agreement, and reflects an absence of understanding of the meaning of being a good trade partner. 

(Conclusion: Criterion worse than unmet.)

Towards a New North American Free Trade Agreement (in Principle)

After a brief hiatus during the run up to the recent Mexican elections, negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are in the news again, with hints of an agreement by the end of August. We have heard talk of an imminent agreement before and the chances of an agreement within the month may not be very high, and even if it does happen it may be more of an “agreement in principle” with many details still to be worked out. Nevertheless, with the renewed interest, we thought it was worth breaking down some of the key remaining issues (there are a lot of them, which helps illustrate the amount of work still left to do!).

Rules of Origin (RoO) for Autos

This is the focus of the current talks taking place between the U.S. and Mexico (Canada does not appear to be actively involved, perhaps because it does not have strong feelings about some of the outcomes here). In essence, the Trump administration wants to tighten the requirements for having trade in autos benefit from zero tariffs. In this regard, the U.S. wants to increase the percentage of content that must be from North American sources (currently the figure is 62.5%; the U.S. proposed raising it to 85%, and press reports suggest that 75% is the figure being discussed now). It also wants a percentage of the autos to be made by workers who make above a certain hourly wage (reports suggest that the current U.S. proposal is that 40% of light-duty vehicles and 45% of pick-up trucks are to be made by workers that make as least $16 an hour).

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To Keep NAFTA Humming, Keep Talk of Steel Out

The 7th round of negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) wrapped up early this week, and ended on a relatively positive note.  There was a noticeable change in tone in the joint press conference with USTR Lighthizer, Minister Freeland and Secretary Guajardo, which NAFTA watchers certainly must have noticed.

The first striking detail was actually something that was omitted. Though Lighthizer did say that the two major goals of the administration were to update and rebalance the deal, he didn’t once utter the phrase trade deficit. Instead, he highlighted discouraging outsourcing, likely referring to the U.S. proposals to eliminate the controversial Chapter 11 on investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS); strengthening rules of origin by increasing the content of North American inputs in automobile manufacturing; and adjusting the rules on government procurement, through a “more balanced” dollar-for-dollar procurement market. It should come as no surprise that he is still pushing in these areas, as there is much left to negotiate, and concessions on these issues will not likely be settled until the final rounds of the agreement take shape.

So far, the three countries have closed a total of 6 out of 30 chapters, most recently finishing the chapters on Good Regulatory Practices, Administration and Publication, and Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. Though the three ministers all stressed the importance of timing, considering the upcoming Presidential elections in Mexico, as well as mid-term elections in the U.S., Freeland made clear that Canada would not be satisfied with just any deal. Lighthizer seemed to suggest this as well, but said that while the U.S. preferred a tripartite agreement, he would conclude bilaterals, if necessary. This light jibe is in line with previous reports that Lighthizer thinks the talks are moving a lot more smoothly with Mexico than with Canada.

The overall positive tone was only briefly interrupted when Freeland addressed President Trump’s announcement last week that he would impose a 25% tariff on steel and 10% tariff on aluminum imports. She reiterated the message from her official statement that any tariffs on Canada would be “entirely inappropriate.” A comment on this was to be expected, not least because Canada would be the country most affected by the administration’s actions. In fact, a December 2017 report by the International Trade Administration noted that Canada leads in steel imports to the U.S., making up 16% of total imports. The Canadian and U.S. steel sectors are also highly integrated, with 50% of all American steel exports destined for Canada.

What remained unacknowledged, however, were recent comments by President Trump that the tariffs would be tied to satisfactory progress on the NAFTA negotiations. The three ministers seemed to signal that they prefer to keep the discussion on steel tariffs separate from NAFTA. This would be wise. First, linking the Section 232 actions to NAFTA undermines the overall national security argument put forward by the administration, as it is now being used by the president as a bargaining chip. Second, it would run counter to the spirit of NAFTA, which is of three neighbors working together to increase North American competitiveness. The Department of Defense even expressed its concern “about the negative impact on our key allies” that the steel and aluminum tariffs would bring about. Third, linking this issue to the ongoing negotiations could seriously threaten to derail the talks, which the administration simply cannot afford due to its tight negotiating timeline.

While the NAFTA negotiations have had their ups and downs in seven successive rounds, it is important to keep in mind that things can change very quickly. In Monday’s press conference Freeland, addressing Lighthizer, said “I think we’re becoming friends.” Let’s not upset the progress we’ve made so far on NAFTA, as well as the friends we’ve made along the way, and keep steel out of the discussions.

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NAFTA Round 6: What To Watch For

Trade negotiators from Canada, Mexico and the United States will meet in Montreal next week for a crucial round of talks on renegotiating NAFTA. This is the 6th round of negotiations, and the major demands and proposals are now on the table. Can the parties begin to work out their differences and make progress towards a deal? Here are some key issues to watch.

Poison Pills

The United States (i.e., the Trump administration) was the only NAFTA country that was pushing to renegotiate the existing agreement, so its views are important for determining whether a new NAFTA can be worked out. The Trump administration has made a number of proposals that are probably unacceptable to Canada and Mexico (and also to many members of Congress, as well as other groups). These have been referred to as “poison pills,” with some speculation that the administration offered them in the hopes that the proposals would kill the talks and give the U.S. an excuse to withdraw from NAFTA. Three of the biggest poison pills are:

– A weaker enforcement mechanism for policing violations of the agreement (not weaker than most areas of international law, but a big step backwards from what currently exists in U.S. trade agreements).

– A “sunset clause” that would have the agreement expire after five years unless the parties affirmatively decided to renew it.

– A requirement that in order for automobiles to benefit from the zero tariffs under NAFTA, 50% of their content must be from U.S. sources.

The key question for these proposals is whether the U.S. is going to keep insisting on them, or whether it is willing to accept less (e.g., a review mechanism rather than an automatic expiration clause) or even, ideally, to abandon the proposals completely.

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Strange Bedfellows Event: Investor Protections in the NAFTA Renegotiation

It isn’t very often that free traders at the Cato Institute and the anti-corporate left agree on matters of trade policy. We free traders oppose barriers and subsidies and seek straightforward, nonintrusive rules to ensure an equality of opportunity for businesses, workers, investors, and consumers. The left tends to see those rules as asymmetrically beneficial to business and seeks to leverage trade barriers and subsidies to achieve what it defines as a greater equality of outcome. Those fundamental differences explain why you would see very little overlap in a Venn diagram depicting the policy objectives of Cato’s trade center and, say, Joseph Stiglitz or Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

But a shaded intersection does exist. It exists because free traders are not “pro-business” to the left’s “anti-business.” We are “pro-market.” Accordingly, we are skeptical of rules or policies that tip the scales in favor of one interest group over another. That’s called protectionism. 

Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) is one such example. ISDS provisions are intended to ensure that foreign investors—usually companies that have acquired or established operations abroad—are protected from actions or policies of the home government that fail to meet certain standards of treatment and that cause the investor economic harm. ISDS confers special legal privileges on foreign-invested companies, including the right to sue host governments in third-party arbitration tribunals and win damages for failing to meet those standards. 

One might immediately understand why the left would take issue with special provisions that enable multinational corporations to challenge governments’ efforts to regulate them, but there are many problems with ISDS from a free-market perspective, as well. 

Join us tomorrow on the Hill for a discussion. Panelists include:

  • Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor at Columbia University
  • Dan Ikenson, director of Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies
  • Bruce Fein, Fein & DelValle, PLLC constitutional law expert and associate deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan
  • Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch
  • Moderator: Adam Behsudi, trade reporter for Politico

 

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