Donald Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement the “worst trade deal ever negotiated.” If he were speaking on behalf of Canadian exporters or American consumers of softwood lumber, his point would have some validity. For more than 20 years, NAFTA has failed to deliver free trade in lumber. Instead, a system of managed trade has persisted at the behest of rent-seeking U.S. producers, egged on by Washington lawyers and lobbyists who know a gravy train when they see one.
Those who consider the United States a beacon of free trade in a swirling sea of protectionist scofflaws will be surprised by the sordid details of the decades-long lumber dispute between the United States and Canada. Among those details is the story of how the U.S. Commerce Department (DOC) ran roughshod over the rule of law to manufacture the leverage needed to extort from Canadian lumber mills a sum of $1 billion, which was used to line the pockets of American mills and the U.S. Forestry Service, while restricting lumber imports for nearly a decade through October 2015, at great expense to retailers, builders, and home buyers.
With that ugly history mostly expunged from the public’s memory, the U.S. lumber industry is back at the trough again, demanding its government intervene to restrict Canadian supply, following a whole 13 month period during which it was forced out of the nest to operate in an environment rife with real market conditions! In the quiet shadows of the Friday after Thanksgiving, U.S. softwood lumber producers filed new antidumping and countervailing duty petitions with the DOC and U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), alleging that dumped and subsidized Canadian imports were causing material injury to the domestic industry.
Whether the DOC finds legitimate evidence of dumping or countervailable subsidization is actually beside the point here. The agency has proven itself quite capable of producing evidence it is willing to defend as legitimate, which is all that matters when the game plan is to use the specter of a long, drawn out procedural battle—a period during which importers have no certainty about whether they will have to pay duties or how large that bill will be—to arm-twist the Canadians back to the table to agree, once again, to limited U.S. access in exchange for suspension of the unfair trade petitions.
If the investigations go forward and injurious dumping and/or injurious subsidization are found—a likely outcome given the discretion DOC has to administer these laws—preliminary duties likely would be imposed in April 2017 and final duties imposed by the end of the year. Depending on those duty rates (and how willing importers are to stomach the risk that their duty liability increases) imports of lumber from Canada could continue. But, the more likely outcome is that the two sides will reach a new agreement to limit Canadian access to the U.S. market, through quantitative restrictions, export taxes, or some combination of the two, before preliminary countervailing and antidumping duties are imposed.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the first time that the U.S. trade remedy laws have been used to extort settlements under which foreign producers agree to restrict their exports to the United States in exchange for the U.S. government dropping often spurious claims against them. But the lumber case provides an especially egregious example of how the United States—self-proclaimed champion of free trade—uses the threat of protectionism to strong arm even its closest trade partner.
(If you're interested in diving deeper into this post, the full story is published here, on Forbes.)