Tag: sugar

Zero-For-Zero Sugar Reform: Offer Zero, Get Zero

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) and 11 co-sponsors recently introduced House Concurrent Resolution 40. It expresses the perfectly laudable “sense of Congress that all direct and indirect subsidies that benefit the production or export of sugar by all major sugar producing and consuming countries should be eliminated.” Things go downhill from there.

The resolution conveniently lists the trade-distorting sugar policies of Brazil, India, Thailand, the European Union, and Mexico, while neglecting to mention U.S. tariff-rate quotas (TRQs) and domestic price supports. The president is encouraged to “seek elimination of all direct and indirect subsidies benefiting the production or export of sugar” in foreign countries. Once the president has accomplished this objective and submits a report to Congress detailing how other countries have eliminated their trade-distorting measures, then he “should propose to Congress legislation to implement United States sugar policy reforms.” 

In essence this means, “Once other countries have given up all policies that favor their sugar growers, let us know and we’ll think about whether we should change ours.” Not exactly demonstrating robust U.S. leadership on trade, is it? 

The American Sugar Alliance (ASA), which represents domestic sugar growers and processors, is a strong supporter of the policy status quo. It serves their interests reasonably well. Or, at least it accomplishes the transfer of a lot of money from U.S. consumers to U.S. sugar producers. Not surprisingly, ASA likes Rep. Yoho’s approach to “reform.” ASA can express full support for this version of zero-for-zero knowing full well that it will never happen. 

An ASA statement praising the resolution laments that “Sugar producers … are also struggling with U.S. sugar prices that are currently as low as they were in the 1980s.” That statement may be technically correct because in the early 1980s sugar prices peaked much higher than today’s levels. What it doesn’t say, though, is that U.S. sugar prices have been in a long-term uptrend since 2013 and now are in the neighborhood of 30 cents per pound for raw cane sugar – well above the U.S. loan rate (support price) of 18.75 cents. 

The statement goes on to say, “Jack Pettus, ASA’s chairman, said new technology and strong business practices have made U.S. producers among the world’s most efficient. They are ready to compete on a level international playing field that is subsidy free.” If Pettus had stopped before adding the words, “that is subsidy free,” he and I would be in complete agreement. As I wrote two years ago in the paper, “Toward Free Trade in Sugar,” the U.S. industry is among the world’s most efficient. Based on an analysis published in the May 15, 2014, edition (pages 17-33) of the USDA/ERS publication, Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook, U.S. sugar producers could compete effectively even without the current system of import restrictions and domestic price supports. 

The Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook article addresses relative costs of production across the world’s major sugar-producing regions. If that study doesn’t by itself persuade that the U.S. industry no longer needs protection from imports, consider this additional evidence: Canadian farmers grow sugar beets solely on the basis of earnings from the marketplace. The Canadian government provides no import restrictions or other forms of income assistance. If Canada can produce sugar without subsidies, why can’t the United States?

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Sugar and the TPP

How much Australian sugar should be allowed to enter the U.S. market?  That’s a key question the U.S. government must answer prior to concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.  The United States is the largest sugar market in the TPP, consuming about 11 million metric tons (MMT) per year.  It also is the largest producer (7-8 MMT) and importer (3 MMT) in the group.  Australia generally is believed to be the most cost-competitive sugar producer among the12 TPP nations.  It also is the largest exporter, annually shipping 3-4 MMT to other countries. 

To complicate matters further, sugar liberalization was explicitly excluded from the 2004 Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) due to U.S. political sensitivities.  Australian sugar producers understandably want to redress that omission.  Failure to obtain commercially meaningful access to the U.S. sugar market could lead to rejection of the pact by the Australian parliament.

The U.S. sugar program includes a price-support level for raw cane sugar of 22.25 cents per pound ($490/MT), with refined sugar supported at 26 cents.  Those levels effectively have been raised more than 10 percent to around 24.7 cents ($545/MT) and 30-32 cents, respectively, under the trade-restricting terms of the recent settlement agreement in the antidumping/countervailing-duty (AD/CVD) dispute involving imports from Mexico. (For more on U.S.-Mexico sugar issues, see here and here.)  Mexico is the largest supplier of U.S. sugar imports, generally providing between 1.0-1.5 MMT per year.  Suffice it to say that the agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments will limit the amount of sugar Mexican producers can export to the United States, and also force that sugar to be sold at higher prices. 

With global raw sugar prices currently at relatively low levels of around 12 cents, Australian cane growers find the possibility of selling more sugar to the United States at high prices to be quite intriguing.  However, those sales currently are limited to the amount allocated to Australia under the U.S. tariff-rate quota (TRQ) regime – a modest quantity of only 87,000 MT.  Australia is asking that the TRQ be boosted by 750,000 MT, an increase of more than nine times.  The United States apparently has offered an additional 65,000 MT (official figure not disclosed), which would not even double Australia’s current access. 

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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.

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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.

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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? 

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Sugar from Mexico: Who’s Being Injured?

On March 28, 2014, the U.S. sugar industry filed antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) petitions against imports of sugar from Mexico.  From the time that NAFTA’s sugar provisions were fully implemented in 2008, Mexico has been the only country in the world with unfettered access to the U.S. sugar market.  Sugar interests now are hoping to clamp the fetters back on.  It is not at all clear whether that effort will succeed.

Both the Commerce Department and the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) play important roles in this process.  Commerce must determine the extent of any dumping margin (selling at “less than fair value” due to pricing practices of individual firms) and any countervailing duty margin (benefit received by Mexican exporters from subsidies provided by their government).  The estimated dumping margins for the preliminary phase of the investigation range from 30 to 64 percent; they are likely to be adjusted based on additional information gained in the final phase of the investigation.  Commerce has not yet had an opportunity to establish CVD margins.  Given the degree of government involvement in Mexico’s sugar business, a CVD margin at some level seems likely.

The job of the ITC is to determine whether the domestic sugar industry has been “injured” by the imported sugar.  In its preliminary determination, the commission voted unanimously in the affirmative, which means that the investigation will go forward into its final phase.  This vote was not at all a surprise.  The legal standard for a negative vote in a preliminary determination is quite high.  To have voted in the negative, the ITC would have had to conclude that there was no “reasonable indication that a domestic industry is materially injured or threatened with material injury.”  That is a very difficult standard to meet on the basis of the somewhat limited preliminary record – often with inconclusive evidence – that must be compiled not more than 45 days after the case has been filed. 

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What About “Zero-for-$3 billion-a-Year”?

That’s about how much the U.S. economy would gain from removing all sugar price supports and trade barriers right now.

But the sugar lobby, and their supporters in Congress and, sadly (not to mention confusingly), some conservative groups, are pushing a “Zero-for-Zero” sugar policy, which would essentially end U.S. sugar support programs only when other sugar-producing countries do the same. Seton Motley, president of Less Government puts it this way in an article for the Daily Caller:

It’s called zero-for-zero. Where we approach the planet and say “You get rid of your trade barriers, and we’ll get rid of ours.” In other words, we have zero protectionism — and so does everyone else. Right now, it’s being proposed for sugar…

“Consider that there are more than 100 sugar producing countries worldwide, and there are also basically 100 different sugar policies, each of which includes various forms of government intervention,” [a supply-chain management researcher in a recent study] continues. “[A] free market approach rewards the best and most efficient business people and not the most heavily subsidized producer,…[zero for zero] could stabilize domestic and ultimately world market sugar prices … [Getting] government out of markets creates free markets, and free markets lead to free and fair markets, and that, in the final analysis, is where world sugar needs to be.”

Well sure it does. The question is: what should the United States do while we are waiting for this nirvana to materialise, a process that would be very lengthy indeed? I would suggest that doing ourselves a favour and abandoning the terrible U.S. sugar policy—costing the economy billions of dollars a year through artificially high sugar prices and, now, government sugar purchases—is a good start. Let other countries distort their markets and subsidise sugar importers’ consumption, as is their wont. We don’t have to follow them, and American consumers and businesses would benefit from a freer domestic market in sugar.