Trump on Trade/NAFTA’s Future – Part III

Dear Friends,

On the NAFTA front, there were two further developments this past week of which we wanted to be sure you were aware.

The first was a notice from the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office published in the Federal Register on Tuesday requesting public comment and input on what the U.S. position should be in negotiations with Canada and Mexico to modernize NAFTA.  Specifically, the USTR is interested in comments addressing the following topics:

(a) General and product-specific negotiating objectives for Canada and Mexico in the context of a NAFTA modernization.
(b) Economic costs and benefits to U.S. producers and consumers of removal of any remaining tariffs and removal or reduction of non-tariff barriers on articles traded with Canada and Mexico.
(c) Treatment of specific goods (described by HTSUS numbers), including comments on (1) Product-specific import or export interests or barriers, (2) Experience with particular measures that should be addressed in negotiations, and (3) Addressing any remaining tariffs on articles traded with Canada, including ways to address export priorities and import sensitivities related to Canada and Mexico in the context of the NAFTA.
(d) Customs and trade facilitation issues that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(e) Appropriate modifications to rules of origin or origin procedures for NAFTA qualifying goods.
(f) Any unwarranted sanitary and phytosanitary measures and technical barriers to trade imposed by Canada and Mexico that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(g) Relevant barriers to trade in services between the United States and Canada and Mexico that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(h) Relevant digital trade issues that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(i) Relevant trade-related intellectual property rights issues that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(j) Relevant investment issues that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(k) Relevant competition-related matters that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(l) Relevant government procurement issues that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(m) Relevant environmental issues that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(n) Relevant labor issues that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(o) Issues of particular relevance to small and medium-sized businesses that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(p) Relevant trade remedy issues that should be addressed in the negotiations.
(q) Relevant state-owned enterprise issues that should be addressed in the negotiations.

Comments on these issues (or any others) must be submitted to USTR by June 12, 2017.  In formulating any comments, it is important to keep in mind that this Administration has a different perspective than previous ones when it comes to modernizing or liberalizing NAFTA.  We believe that this effort (at least from a US perspective) will be aimed more squarely at benefitting the United States than previous efforts (which may have looked more at benefitting the NAFTA region as a whole, or US companies with operations in Mexico or Canada).  The following quote from the summary is clear (and consistent with the Administration’s messaging on trade to date): 

“The United States intends to commence negotiations with Canada and Mexico regarding modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The NAFTA was negotiated more than 25 years ago, and, while our economy and U.S. businesses have changed considerably over that period, NAFTA has not. The United States seeks to support higher-paying jobs in the United States and to grow the U.S. economy by improving U.S. opportunities under NAFTA.”

Emphasis added.  A copy of the notice is available here.

The second development relates to a study the USTR requested the U.S. International Trade Commission undertake related to NAFTA imports.  The study, entitled “Probable Economic Effect of Providing Duty-Free Treatment for Currently Dutiable Imports,” will examine the impact of providing duty-free treatment to imports of currently dutiable imports from Canada and Mexico.  Specifically, the ITC will provide a report containing its advice as to the probable economic effect of providing such treatment on (i) industries in the United States producing like or directly competitive products, and (ii) consumers.  The ITC has been asked to look at every dutiable article in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule.  The ITC has also been asked to specifically address the probable economic effects of eliminating tariffs on any dutiable agricultural imports from Canada or Mexico.   

The report is due by August 16, 2017.  A copy of the ITC notice of initiation can be found here and the USTR’s letter to the ITC can be found here.

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These efforts to modernize NAFTA/trade with Canada and Mexico represent a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity.  Every company that produces articles in the NAFTA territory, sources articles in the NAFTA territory or competes with articles produced or sourced in the NAFTA territory has a strong incentive to participate in this process.  Given how quickly it is moving, companies need to assess their opportunities/challenges and decide how best to engage now.  Those who do not do so will likely find themselves at a competitive disadvantage once this process is over. 

We are helping numerous clients perform this assessment, as well as develop and implement strategies (offensive or defensive) to maximize the potential benefits.  If you have any questions about how to go about this, please let us know.

Best regards,
Ted

 

Dutiability of Royalties

Dear Friends,

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recently published a customs valuation ruling that we thought you might find to be of interest.  The ruling, HQ H233376 (Sept. 19, 2016) involves the dutiability of royalties paid to a licensor unrelated to the importer or the manufacturer of the imported merchandise.  The issue in the ruling was whether the payment of royalties to a third party licensor unrelated to the manufacturer were considered to be a “condition of the sale” of the imported merchandise.

This ruling is worth a quick read, but we have summarized the key facts for your reference below.

The importer entered into an agreement with an unrelated U.S. patent holder to license certain utility patents.  The license covered, among other things, the right to “make, have made, use, sell, offer for sale and import” licensed devices.  The technology covered by the patents was developed in the United States.

The importer also entered into a manufacturing agreement with an unrelated Malaysian manufacturer to have the imported merchandise made.  The agreement authorizes the manufacturer to use the technology disclosed to it by the company to make the imported merchandise.  The importer declared upon importation the price it paid to the manufacturer for the goods.

The importer pays the U.S. patent holder a royalty based on the resale price of the imported merchandise in the United States.

Based on these facts, CBP concluded that (i) the royalty was related to the imported merchandise, and (ii) the importer was required to pay it directly to the licensor.  As a result, the only remaining issue was whether the royalty payments were a “condition of the sale” of the imported merchandise.  This is was particularly important here since the royalties were paid to a licensor who was unrelated to the manufacturer of the imported merchandise (i.e., is a royalty payment to an unrelated third party licensor a condition of the sale of merchandise between two other parties?). 

CBP ultimately adopted what it referred to as a “practical, common sense” approach to this issue and concluded that the royalties were part of the dutiable value of the imported merchandise.  CBP found it relevant that the royalties were for patents, as opposed to trademarks, and that the licensed technology was necessary to produce the imported merchandise. 

The ruling highlights several important points all importers should keep in mind, namely:

(1) royalties paid for patents are more likely to be dutiable under U.S. law than are royalties paid for trademarks, regardless of to whom they are paid (i.e., to the seller or even to a party unrelated to the seller);

(2) the request for internal advice grew out of a Focused Assessment – which demonstrates how closely Regulatory Audit looks at such issues; and

(3) the ruling was issued more than 4 years after the request for internal advice was originally submitted to CBP HQ — which demonstrates how long it takes CBP HQ to issue customs valuation rulings, in particular.

In light of the foregoing, all importers should confirm internally whether any royalties or licenses fees are paid in relation to any imported merchandise.  If so, then the agreements should be reviewed to determine whether the royalties or license fees are dutiable additions to value.  This is not particularly difficult to do.  We regularly help importers with this issue and would be happy to discuss with you how best to do so, if helpful.  If such a discussion would be helpful, just let us know.

We hope this is helpful.

Best regards,

Ted

Trade Troll’s FCA Case Dismissed

Dear Friends:

We are writing to let you know about the recent dismissal of a customs-related False Claims Act (“FCA”) suit.

Last week, a U.S. district court judge dismissed an FCA suit brought against a U.S.-based producer of iron and steel pipe fittings.  The underlying complaint alleged that the U.S. company (1) purposefully failed to mark its foreign-made pipe fittings to hide the country of origin, and (2) falsified entry documents to avoid having to pay marking duties.  In dismissing the suit, the judge found that, while the alleged violations could rise to a claim under the FCA, the relator “provide[d] no basis for its wholly conclusory allegations that [the U.S. company] had falsified its customs entry documents or knowingly avoided paying any required marking duties.”

This case is interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, the case was initiated by a relator that had no relationship to the target company.  The relator in this case, Customs Fraud Investigations, LLC (“CFI”), is a company started for the specific purpose of analyzing potential customs fraud, filing FCA suits against companies, and recovering financial incentives resulting from the settlements of those suits (it is interesting that CFI’s principal is also a trade consultant for a major Washington, DC law firm).  CFI did not appear to have any insider knowledge of alleged violations and instead filed the complaint based on assumptions it made based on publicly available data.  This is the first instance we are aware of where the relator is a corporate entity that has no relation to the target (i.e., is not a former employee, competitor, etc.).  The intellectual property space has seen ‘non-practicing entities’ (also referred to as ‘patent trolls’) bring claims against companies for years and it appears that we may be seeing a similar model emerge on the trade side.

Second, if the government declines to intervene in an FCA action, it generally means that the case is a clunker.  Once the relator files its complaint, the government is given the opportunity to investigate and decide whether to step in and take the case over.  In most situations where the government steps in, the cases settle shortly thereafter.  If the government decides not to intervene, the relator can still prosecute the case, but, as with the situation here, that is usually a signal that the case is not very likely to succeed.

We hope that this is helpful.  If you have any questions about this case, or if you would like to discuss the issues raised here further, please let us know.

Best regards,

Ted