Tag: USMCA

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.)