Interesting Customs Enforcement Action

Dear Friends,

I recently came across a story about customs enforcement in Singapore that I thought you might find to be of interest.

The case involves a marketing manager in Singapore who was sentenced by a Singapore court to a fine of SGD$92,000 (roughly, $68,000) for counterfeiting U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement Certificates of Origin provided to a U.S. customer, and for making false statements to the Singapore government when applying for the certificates.  It appears that the marketing manager was engaged in a scheme to help defraud the U.S. government of antidumping duties (i.e., passing Chinese-origin uncovered innerspring units as being of Singapore origin) and, in the process, making false statements to Singapore Customs.  A copy of the Singapore Customs press release is available here.

There are several interesting things about this case.  First, the prosecution was based on information supplied to Singapore Customs by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  It appears that CBP may have uncovered the fraud on the U.S. side and then provided information about the exporter to the Singapore authorities.  Second, it appears that CBP may have uncovered the fraud when the U.S. importer/customer underwent a CBP audit.  See Headquarters Ruling #h270834 (March 2, 2017).

We hope you find this interesting/helpful.  If you have any questions, please let us know.

Best regards,

Ted

 

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.

*     *     *

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

 

International Trade-Related Executive Orders

Dear Friends,

What an interesting time to be working in international trade! 

We are writing to make sure you saw the Executive Orders President Trump issued over the past few days on international trade issues.  All of the Executive Orders are available here.

The Presidential Executive Order Addressing Trade Agreement Violations and Abuses was signed on April 29, 2017.  It directs the Secretary of Commerce and the United States Trade Representative to conduct “comprehensive performance reviews” of all international trade and investment agreements the United States is a party to, as well as trade relations with those WTO member countries with which the United States does not have a trade agreement, but does have a significant trade deficit in goods. The goal of these reviews is to (i) identify violations or abuses by our trading partners, (ii) trade or investment agreements that have not created new U.S. jobs, had favorable effects on our trade balance, increased U.S. exports, etc., and (iii) make recommendations to address the issues identified in (i) and (ii). 

Based on statements President Trump has made to date, we expect that NAFTA as it relates to trade with Mexico, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the WTO Government Procurement Agreement and others to receive negative marks under the standards to be used in the performance reviews.  What will be more interesting are the recommendations that are made to address those perceived shortcomings (e.g., revising rules of origin, withdrawing from agreements, etc.).  The performance reviews must be submitted to the President by October 26, 2017.

The Presidential Executive Order on Establishment of Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy was also signed on April 29, 2017.  It creates a new Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy (OTMP) within the White House.  The stated mission of the OTMP “is to defend and serve American workers and domestic manufacturers while advising the President on policies to increase economic growth, decrease the trade deficit, and strengthen the United States manufacturing and defense industrial bases.”

These Executive Orders encapsulate much of the President’s trade policy, which is focused on (1) seeking to identify and remedy unfair trading practices, and (2) reducing the trade-in-goods deficits the United States has with other countries.  Companies should be viewing these Executive Orders as a creating an opportunity to engage with the Administration to help shape the recommendations for addressing the problems that they perceive exist with trade.

We are assisting numerous clients navigate these issues.  If you would like to discuss your specific situation and what you should be doing further, just let us know.

Best regards,
Ted

Recent FTC “Made in USA” Enforcement Actions

Dear Friends,

We are writing to let you know about increased enforcement activity at the federal level related to “Made in USA” claims.

In the past few weeks, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has resolved two administrative complaints filed against U.S. companies for allegedly making false U.S.-origin claims. 

In February, the FTC published an agreement containing a consent order involving a water filtration company based in Georgia.  The FTC’s complaint alleged that the company deceived its consumers with claims that its systems and parts are “Built in USA”, “Proudly Built in the USA” and “Built in USA Legendary brand of water filter” when in fact the company either imported its products or built them using significant imported components. 

Similarly, earlier this week, the FTC published an agreement containing a consent order involving a Texas company that sells metal pulleys for industrial use.  The complaint alleges that the company advertises its products online, in stores, at trade shows, through social media, etc. and uses unqualified U.S. origin claims, such as “Made in USA”, “Made in the USA American Product” and graphical depictions of the American flag, on the product and in its advertising.  The FTC alleged that many of the company’s products contained significant imported components (and some of the parts were imported from abroad already stamped “Made in USA”).

Without admitting wrong-doing, both companies agreed to enter into consent orders with the FTC to resolve the matters. These orders mandate compliance with the FTC’s Enforcement Policy Statement on U.S. Origin Claims going forward, and include certain reporting and recording requirements.  Each consent order remains in effect for 20 years.  Violations of the consent orders lead to significant monetary fines.  Additional information about each case can be found here and here.

These actions are important, as they may signal increased enforcement of this issue at the federal level.  As you know, the FTC has adopted strict guidelines for making unqualified U.S.-origin claims – the ‘all or virtually all’ U.S. content standard.  In recent years, however, there has not been a great deal of enforcement at the federal level.  These actions may signal that this will be changing.  Accordingly, every company should review its product markings, as well as its advertising (including social media), to make sure that any U.S.-origin claims (unqualified or qualified) comply with the FTC’s guidelines.  If your claims are in compliance, you should also consider reviewing the types of claims your competitors are making to help ensure there is a level playing field for everyone.

We regularly advise clients on these issues (and have represented companies in FTC enforcement actions) and would be happy to discuss this with you further.  If such a discussion would be helpful, just let us know.

We hope this is helpful.

Best regards,
Ted

Post-Entry Preference Program Claims II

Dear Friends,

We wrote to you back in November about a development which was expected to expand the number of preferential duty claims that could be asserted for the first time via protest. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has now issued updated guidance specifying that all preferential trade agreements for which post-importation refund claims were previously limited to post-entry amendments (PEAs) or post-summary correction (PSCs) may now also be raised for the first time via protest.  This includes preferential claims under GSP, AGOA, the Australia, Bahrain, Israel, Jordon, Morocco and Singapore FTAs, and the Pharmaceutical Products Agreement, among others.

As noted below, this is a significant development since it expands the period in which post-entry refund claims may be made under certain preference programs.  It also breathes new life into protests filed for such claims that were previously rejected as “non-protestable”.  We have been helping clients secure refunds from CBP on such protests and would be happy to discuss this with you further, if relevant.

We hope this is helpful.  If you have any questions about this issue, please let us know.

Best regards,
Ted

 

GAO Report on C-TPAT

Dear Friends,

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program that we thought you might find to be of interest.  In conducting this review, the GAO sought to assess the extent to which (1) CBP is meeting its security validation responsibilities, and (2) C-TPAT members are receiving the benefits promised by CBP for participation. 

While the full report is worth a quick read (available here), the GAO concluded that problems with the data management system (i.e., the Portal) have led to problems with C-TPAT validations (e.g., incorrect tier levels being reflected in the system, incorrect dates for profile updates/reviews, lack of standardized guidance from CBP HQ, etc.) and that CBP cannot determine the extent to which C-TPAT members are actually receiving benefits because of these data problems.  On this latter point, GAO stated:

Since 2012, CBP has compiled data on certain events or actions it has taken regarding arriving shipments—such as examinations, holds, and processing times—for both C-TPAT and non-C-TPAT members through its C-TPAT Dashboard.20 However, based on GAO’s preliminary analyses of data contained in the Dashboard, and data accuracy and reliability concerns cited by C-TPAT program officials, we concluded that CBP staff are not able to determine the extent to which C-TPAT members are receiving benefits, such as reduced likelihood of examinations of their shipments and expedited shipment processing, compared to non-members.

We conducted preliminary analyses of C-TPAT program data from the Dashboard to understand, for example, how the examination rates of C-TPAT members’ shipments compared with those of non-C-TPAT members across different modes of transportation (air, truck, vessel, and rail) for each year from fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2015. The results of our analyses showed that C-TPAT members’ shipments did not consistently experience lower examination and hold rates and processing times compared to non-members’ shipments across the different modes of transportation.

Report at 18. 

While the findings of this report many not come as much of a surprise to the companies that participate in the program, it is good to see the government auditing the program and trying to make it better. 

If you have any questions about the report, or C-TPAT more generally, 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