South Korea

COVID-19 — US International Trade Commission report on U.S. imports and tariffs on COVID-19 related goods

In a post from April 6th, I reviewed a WTO document on medical goods relevant to COVID-19. https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/04/06/covid-19-wto-report-on-medical-goods-fao-report-on-food-security/. As reviewed in that post, the data compiled by the WTO were useful but both over- and underinclusive. Because tariffs are harmonized for most countries at the 6-digit HS level, comparable data was only available at that level for the WTO’s analysis even though virtually every category included many products that are not relevant to treating COVID-19. The list also doesn’t include input materials as recognized by the WTO. I had suggested that it would be useful to have WTO Members supply information at their most disaggregated level of detail to see if a tighter fit of at least finished products could be identified in terms of trade.

The United States has now provided a report that provides its data at the 10-digit HTS level of detail for imports into the United States. It would be helpful if other major trading nations similarly provided their detail data to the WTO and for public release. Hopefully, the U.S. will provide similar data for its exports in the coming months.

Development of U.S. import data

USTR has been exploring possible elimination of duties on medical goods needed for the U.S. response to COVID-19 and is accepting comments through late June. The U.S. International Trade Commission (“USITC”) was asked by the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee and the Chairman of U.S. Senate Committee on Finance to conduct “a factfinding investigation to identify imported goods related to the response to COVID-19, their source countries, tariff classifications, and applicable rates of duty.”. The report from the USITC’s Investigation 332-576 was completed in late April and is now available from the USITC webpage. USITC, COVID-19 Related Goods: U.S. Imports and Tariffs, Publication 5047 (April 2020). Updates to the report may be made through June 2020. See https://www.usitc.gov/press_room/news_release/2020/er0504ll1540.htm

In the report, the USITC compiled data on 112 10-digit HTS categories but noted that many of these categories which are generally more detailed than the 6-digit categories used in the WTO paper still contain large quantities of goods that are not relevant to the COVID-19 response. Thus, the U.S. data, while more refined that the 6-digit data used by the WTO are still overinclusive. To the extent major input data for products needed to address COVID-19 are not included in the USITC investigation, the results are underinclusive as well.

The USITC Executive Summary notes that of the 112 HTS categories:

6 cover COVID-19 test kits/testing instruments,

9 cover disinfectants ad sterilization products,

22 cover medical imagining, diagnostic, oxygen therapy, pulse oximeters, and other equipment,

20 cover medicines (pharmaceuticals),

19 cover non-PPE medical consumables and hospital supplies,

27 cover personal protective equipment, and

9 covered other products.

Looking at what tariffs were applied, the ITC looked both at ordinary customs duties (Column 1 rates) and also whether additional duties on products from China were owed because of the 301 investigation and subsequent actions by the Administration. The USITC indicated that 76 products (68%) were duty-free for ordinary customs purposes and that 36 products (32%) were subject to duties, though one or more countries’ goods entered duty free for each of the 36 products.

For goods from China, 59 categories were not subject to additional 301 duties, 55 products were subject to additional duties (39 products at 25% additional duties; 16 products at 7.5% additional duties) although 28 of the 55 categories were subject to exclusions (total exclusions for 13 product categories; partial exclusions for the remaining 15 categories).

The Commission pulled import data for 2017-2019 (including for several categories which expired before 2020 for completeness of the underlying data). The data show US imports by HTS category and then show the top 5 source countries by HTS and the all other country customs value.

The data from the investigation will be used by USTR and Congress to inform Administration decisions on which products should receive tariff reductions/eliminations.

Using the ITC’s list, the trade data can presently be updated through March 2020 as March 2020 data are now publicly available.. The total for the 112 categories for 2019 was U.S. imports for consumption of $105.3 billion up from $81.3 billion in 2017 and $93.7 billion in 2018. Imports in the first quarter of 2020 were $28.6 billion up from $24.6 billion in the first quarter of 2019.

The top 15 sources of imports into the U.S. in 2019 are the following. Data also show the percentage change in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the first quarter of 2019.

Top sources of imports Customs Value 2019 % change 2019-2020

Ireland $14.173 billion +12.77%

China $12.313 billion -14.13%

Germany $12.228 billion +20.35%

Mexico $ 8.791 billion + 4.44%

Canada $ 6.026 billion +19.57%

Belgium $ 5.952 billion +63.21%

Switzerland $ 5.082 billion +39.80%

Japan $ 4.144 billion +28.38%

United Kingdom $ 3.409 billion +11.42%

India $ 2.816 billion +16.71%

South Korea $ 2.694 billion -30.68%

Netherlands $ 2.545 billion +94.16%

Italy $ 2.177 billion +75.66%

Malaysia $ 2.163 billion + 7.65%

Costa Rica $ 1.693 billion +22.50%

All Other $16.574 billion +15.13%

Total $105.267 billion +16.16%

Different supplying countries focus on different parts of the medical goods needs of the United States. For example, the top four HTS categories imports from Ireland accounted for more than $10 billion of the $14.173 billion from the country in 2019 and all were medicines. In comparison, the top two HTS categories of imports into the U.S. from China were basket categories (other articles of plastic; other made up articles) which are presumably personal protective equipment (“PPE”) products and were $5 billion of the $12.313 billion. While ventilators were also a significant item, most other major items appear to fit within the PPE category.

Conclusion

The purpose of the USITC investigation and report are to provide information to the Congress and Administration to help identify which imported products relevant to the COVID-19 response by the United States are dutiable and which products from China are also subject to additional tariffs from the 301 investigation. The Administration and Congress will use the information as part of the Administration’s review of which imported products should face a reduction or elimination of tariffs at least during the pandemic.

However, the data also provide useful information for broader use in understanding the extent of trade in goods actually relevant to the global response to COVID-19. Hopefully, the U.S. will compile comparable data on the country’s exports and other major trading nations will supply comparable data to the WTO and to the public.

Shifting Trade Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As of April 28, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world is over three million. The EU/UK and U.S. have dominated the number of cases and number of deaths to the present time after the start of the pandemic in China. The EU and UK have more than one million cases and more than 120,000 deaths. The United States will likely surpass one million cases by the end of April 28th with deaths above 55,000. . Together they accounted for roughly 70% of cases through April 27 and 84% of deaths.

But the rate of growth is expanding in other parts of the world while number of new cases is shrinking in Europe and flatlining in the United States. The data below look at the number of cases on April 27 and the percent growth of new cases measuring a fourteen day period ending on April 27 compared to a fourteen day period ending on April 11. What the table makes clear is that Europe has been going through a period of declining numbers (percentage less than 100%), North America (based on the US) is close to zero growth (though Mexico’s 14 day numbers more than tripled) , while parts of Africa, Central and South America and some countries in Asia are experiencing rapid growth, albeit generally from low levels. China has largely gotten through the first wave and so numbers for both fourteen day periods are quite low even though the ratio is close to 100%.

Country/Area Number of cases April 27 ratio 14 day cases 4-27/4-11

EU27 908,316 59.65%

UK 152,840 123.03%

4 (Switz., Nrwy, Icel, Lich) 38,358 31.70%

United States 965,910 102.89%

Canada 46,884 128.99%

Mexico 14,677 320.31%

Japan 13,385 159.30%

South Korea 10,738 20.68%

Singapore 13,624 942.40%

China 84,199 93.57%

India 27,892 285.06%

Iran 90,481 52.41%

Turkey 110,130 128.65%

Russia 80,949 599.02%

21 African countries 29,479 185.71%

8 South & Central America 146,515 249.48%

World Total 2,914,507 104.44%

Source; European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, situation update worldwide, as of 27 April 2020 and 11 April 2020.

As the growth in the number of new cases slows in many developed countries while ramping up in other countries, there will be increasing needs for medical supplies (medicines, equipment, personal protective equipment and other supplies) in countries or territories that heretofore have not had large supply needs.

At the same time, needs for some types of equipment may be reduced in countries that have gotten past the worst of the first wave. Ventilators would be a case in point. In the United States, as hard hit areas like New York see lower hospitalization rates, the state has been able to forward some ventilators to other states with growing case loads. Similarly, the United States has moved from a situation of buying ventilators abroad to being able to send ventilators abroad. That ability is presumably increasing as expanded U.S. production of ventilators kicks into higher gear as we get to the end of April.

Countries like China that have largely gotten through the first wave of COVID-19 have moved from being large importers of medical supplies to being able to export significant quantities of various supplies, including personal protective equipment. They have also ramped up production of some medical supplies and so should be able to both handle any internal needs and continue to expand exports to the world.

However, for countries that have gotten into a period of declining new cases or even flat growth, needs for personal protective equipment, disenfectant, testing equipment and supplies will continue to grow as these countries deal with both ongoing needs for hospital care and the significant increase in testing and tracing needed for a safe reopening of countries and the likely change in protective gear needed for citizens freed from stay at home orders.

Prior posts have reviewed efforts by the multilateral organizations like the WHO, IMF, World Bank, FAO, WCO and WTO to facilitate transparency, financial and other needs of the world during the pandemic as well as efforts at coordinated actions by the G20.

Faced with the worst pandemic in more than a century, the world was generally caught flat footed and without adequate supplies to address the needs of individual countries or the world as a whole.

Transparency and efforts to keep markets open are two of the trade focuses of governments and the WTO. However, a health crisis during a time of grossly inadequate medical supplies has resulted in many countries taking at least temporary actions to secure medical supplies needed for domestic demand. This has occurred through export restraints, commandeering domestic production, using laws aimed for national emergencies and other actions which favor the large and wealthy over other parties.

There appears to be little or no international efforts to coordinate expansion of critical supplies or to monitor demand vs. supply availability to maximize utilization of the scarce supplies that are available in areas hardest hit. If in fact, the pandemic is gaining steam in developing and least developed countries, there is an increasing need for coordinated action in supporting these countries in the weeks and months ahead.

In that regard, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff provided virtual remarks on April 20th to an event hosted by the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing on the role of the WTO in assisting in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The link to the presentation is here and the materials off of the WTO webpage are embedded below. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_20apr20_e.htm.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff_-Policy-coordina

While DDG Wolff recognizes that any action by the WTO is based upon initiatives from Members, he includes a series of “[a]genda items for a WTO COVID 19 Response”. Some of the agenda items have been pursued by individual WTO members as well as being part of an agreement between Singapore and New Zealand. These would include tariff suspensions on relevant medical supplies and enhanced trade facilitation for medical supplies. The WTO membership has already authorized transparency on actions taken, although Members have at best a spotty performance in providing the transparency agreed to.

The proposed agenda includes items that appear to be more aspirational in nature, at least during the current pandemic, including an agreement on codes of conduct on topics such as “guidelines on allocating scarcity”, “an accord on export controls and equivalent measures (including, e.g., pre-emptive purchasing in whatever form)”. Such issues will likely have greater likelihood of success after the pandemic has passed.

Of great interest to me is the last posting under “Codes of conduct, best practices and international understandings resulting in” which is “Coordinated efforts to enhance manufacturing of medical equipment and supplies”. It is possible that there are efforts within the WTO or the OECD or other groups to gather information on current capacities and planned expansions. Such an effort if not currently occurring should be made a priority during the pandemic and going forward. As China’s experience demonstrated (where demand in China for masks exceeded China production by ten-to-one during the peak increase in cases), supply is unlikely to meet demand in individual countries without better coordination amongst countries and without a greater global inventory buffer to address extraordinary demand surges.

The last agenda item proposed by DDG Wolff is the “Formation of a WTO Member Emergency Covid 19 Response Committee (ERC) or Task Force”. One would hope that an ERC could be quickly created within the WTO although many Members have shown reluctance during the pandemic (at least during the time where in-person meetings are not possible) to agree to any substantive decisions, although being open to collect information. It is also unclear how quickly an ERC, if created, would be able to advance proposals of interest to Members. But it could certainly be a group focused on gathering greater information relevant to supplies and demand as well as restrictions and liberalizations.

Finally, DDG Wolff in looking at planning for the future advances the idea of creating a WTO Committee for Policy Planning. “It is necessary to assure that there is dedicated policy planning capacity within the WTO Secretariat and networked with Members, including experts in capitals who would be able to participate remotely.” Such a Committee could hopefully, inter alia, help WTO Members come up with policies and rules that would better prepare the world for any future pandemics. While much of what is required to minimize the effects of future pandemics is not within the WTO’s jurisdiction, there are certainly areas that are. Many of those include the items DDG Wolff has included in his suggested agenda for the WTO in response to COVID-19. Hopefully, if not doable during the pandemic, such agenda items will be addressed aggressively after the pandemic, perhaps through a Committee for Policy Planning.

Conclusion

The current health pandemic is continuing at a high level but with growing infections starting to shift geographical areas of interest. As developing countries and least developed countries become areas of increased cases, the challenges of ensuring adequate medical supplies to those in need will become greater and be complicated by health infrastructure in many countries, financial resources, and continued supply/demand imbalances. The best hope for positive outcomes is greater coordination of activity and expanded financial resources available to those in need. The seemingly largest gap in coordinated activity is in the area of current supply abilities, growth in capacity and shifting demand needs. Hopefully international organizations like the WTO can help fill the gap.

Transparency on trade actions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic

Global confirmed cases of COVID-19 will reach two million today, April 15, with the actual number likely much higher and with deaths over 125,000. Nearly every country on earth has at least some confirmed cases.

Different countries and territories are at different stages in dealing with COVID-19 infections, with China, South Korea and Singapore seemingly well past the worst of the first wave of infections. Countries in Europe and various states within the United States are also seeing the rate of infection flatten or even decline following weeks of stay-at-home orders, social distancing and drastic changes to daily life. Hot spots are shifting both within countries (e.g., the United States) and to different countries.

The economic cost of closing down portions of economies has been unprecedented with the IMF characterizing the hit on global GDP to be the worst since the great depression of the 1930s. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020. To avoid even worse economic fallout, countries are pouring huge sums into their economies to prevent massive bankruptcies, limit unemployment and provide expanded social safety nets. Press reports suggest at least $8 trillion has been committed with more being considered in various countries.

For countries who are witnessing likely GDP reductions of as much as 35% in one of the first two quarters of 2020, governments are mapping out scenarios for reopening closed portions of their economies if they have been recent epicenters or engaged in phased reopening if apparently largely past the first phase. Such planning is occurring at the subnational, national or trading bloc level (EU) with little apparent effort to coordinate efforts around the world. Where plans are being discussed publicly, common elements appear to be expanded and harmonized testing (both for the infection and for antibodies), ability to do tracing of individuals who have been in contact with individuals found to have the virus to secure quarantining, capacity of the healthcare system to handle cases, and adequacy of supplies. Concerns about privacy interests are also part of the discussion/needs for democracies. See, e.g., European Commission roadmap released April 15, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_652; https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication_-_a_european_roadmap_to_lifting_coronavirus_containment_measures_0.pdf

For most of the developing and least developed countries, the pandemic has yet to show its full force. Many of these countries have inadequate healthcare infrastructure and don’t have the internal manufacturing capabilities or financial resources to handle the pandemic without assistance if they become an epicenter.

The world has seen limited actual coordination of efforts by major players despite commitments by G20 countries although funding for multilateral institutions like the IMF have been increased to facilitate expanded efforts for the weakest countries. There also seems to be an exchange of information and some cooperation in the research efforts underway to find a vaccine.

Many countries who have been hard hit by the pandemic were slow to recognize the extent of the challenge and often slow in implementing comprehensive actions which has exacerbated the challenges, the loss of life and the harm to their economies. This has led to some lack of transparency at least in the early days and perhaps a reluctance for greater cooperation.

The pandemic’s spread has led to extraordinary gaps in supply availability versus short term demand requirements. For example, the OECD indicated that China, which manufactures half of the world supply of masks, found demand for masks at the peak of the crisis in China at ten times the beginning manufacturing capability of the country. Even after ramp up of production, demand in China was twice as large as the dramatically expanded manufacturing capabilities until the country’s infection rate declined. With both the EU and the US going through huge expansions of COVID-19 cases in March and into April, the global shortage problem has been continued and magnified despite additional capacity expansions occurring in other countries.

With no current vaccine to deal with the infections, countries faced with expanding case loads have often shifted to imposing export restraints to prevent loss of scarce supplies, encouraging expanded production, and using other tactics to address domestic demand even if reducing supply to other countries or even if local actions are counterproductive because of global supply chains and similar actions by others. Export restraints have been imposed by close to 70 countries or territories and include actions by China, the EU, the United States and many others, though restraints are arguably temporary and may have exceptions depending on the country applying the restraints. And countries who had export restraints at one point, may be significant exporters later (China) or had been exporters to hard hit countries prior to ramp up of internal demand (e.g., U.S. to China).

Importance of transparency in times of crisis

Each government attempts to provide some level of transparency to its citizens and businesses on actions it is taking. Members of the WTO have committed to providing information on trade measures taken to respond to COVID-19 and groups of countries (G20) have supported that effort. As of April 14th, WTO Members had provided 49 notifications of trade actions related to COVID-19 that either restricted goods or liberalized movement of goods https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm. While this is a start, there are likely dozens or hundreds of other actions that have not been notified as yet (including actions that may have been withdrawn after a period of time). The lack of full transparency by WTO Members is unfortunate and prevents other Members to understand the reality around the world or to understand potential best practices by other trading partners.

Some business trade associations have put together data bases of actions addressing particular actions important to their members. For example, the Baltic and International Maritime Council (“BiMCO”) has compiled and updates port restrictions/requirements including ability of crew to depart cargo ships in ports, etc. https://www.bimco.org/ships-ports-and-voyage-planning/crew-support/health-and-medical-support/novel-coronavirus—implementation-measures. Similarly, IATA has collected and updates data on requirements for airlines (passenger and air cargo) by country. https://www.iata.org/en/programs/safety/health/diseases/government-measures-related-to-coronavirus/. The data compiled is obviously important for the ships and planes moving cargo internationally. So transparency exists because of efforts of business associations. Unfortunately, one does not see any effort by governments to harmonize requirements across countries to simplify and reduce the costs of moving essential goods.

It does not appear that there are readily accessible data on all suppliers globally of essential medical goods, capacity expansions, current bottlenecks, product availability, etc. It is not clear if such data could be compiled by industry associations or by governments. Presumably such information would be important for a global effort to maximize availability of products to all countries during the pandemic, identify ongoing shortages, prioritize where additional products are needed and so forth. The lack of such information has to be a major shortfall in the transparency needs to effectively deal with the pandemic.

Individual governments, of course, address internal needs on an ongoing basis through notices, regulations, etc. Many of these actions could be notified to international organizations (e.g., to the WTO) in addition to being available domestically. Expanding notifications would improve transparency and potentially encourage other governments to adopt best practices of other countries.

In the United States, many agencies, as well as the White House, are involved in different aspects of keeping goods moving during the pandemic or in restricting the export of such goods. For example, to look just at a few of the agencies involved in the United States, the State Department has made announcements on ensuring H-2 visas for farm workers. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/News/visas-news/important-announcement-on-h2-visas.html. Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection have taken various actions to expedite clearance of essential goods or implement Administration restrictions on the export of goods. https://www.fema.gov/news-release/2020/04/08/fema-covid-19-supply-chain-task-force-supply-chain-stabilization; https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/coronavirus. The Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have issued various notices addressing special needs for agricultural goods with the collapse of food service sector which supplies restaurants (e.g., temporary waiver of requirements for country of origin information or certain labeling requirements for goods originally destined for food service that are being sold at retail). https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus; https://www.ams.usda.gov/content/usda-announces-labeling-flexibilities-facilitate-distribution-food-retail-locations; https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/counterterrorism-and-emerging-threats/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19. FEMA, EXIM and others are all playing roles as well.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has created extraordinary challenges for the health of the world’s peoples and has imposed unimaginable costs to the global and national economies. As countries work through their individual challenges, there are a spectrum of options to pursue that will reduce or expand the human and economic costs of the pandemic. International organizations are only as strong as their member governments permit them to be. Many observers have lamented the lack of global leadership. Such lack of leadership handicaps the ability and likelihood of countries to minimize the damage from the pandemic and to prepare better for future challenges. Transparency should be the bare minimum we receive from the world’s governments. While there is certainly some transparency on COVID-19 and trade actions being taken (better in some countries than others), we are not maximizing the benefits that broad-based transparency would make available for countries individually or acting collectively. There is still time for a better effort. There are real costs for failing to do all that can be done on this issue.