Is Increased/Intensified FTC Enforcement of “Made in USA” Claims on the Horizon?

Dear Friends,

There have been some recent developments with regard to the Federal Trade Commission’s enforcement of the “Made in USA” guidelines that we wanted to bring to your attention.

A theme of “America First” trade enforcement activity under the current administration is protecting/promoting U.S. manufacturing.  This is evident in the Section 301 tariffs on Chinese-made goods, the Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum, the renegotiation of NAFTA and the pending Section 232 investigation contemplating duties on autos and auto parts.  It is now also visible in significant changes to “Made in USA” enforcement at the FTC.

Since taking office, President Trump has appointed a full contingent of new FTC Commissioners (5 of 5).  This is uncommonly quick (Commissioners are appointed for limited terms; Presidents Bush, Obama and Clinton each only appointed all five FTC commissioners once they reached their second terms in office.)  The effect of the new appointees is already being seen.

As you may know, the FTC enforces a stringent definition of what qualifies as “Made in USA” for labeling and advertising purposes. Only products manufactured or assembled in the United States with “all or virtually all” U.S.-origin content (generally viewed as 95%+ U.S. content) meet this standard.  While the FTC has engaged in regular enforcement actions over the last 20 years, it has rarely sought to impose penalties greater than a public censure in the form of a consent order.  Most consent orders do not even involve an admission of guilt by the named party (just an agreement to change the offending behavior going forward).

A trio of recent cases suggest that this may be about to change.  In each case, the facts were clear cut—companies plainly (even enthusiastically) advertising Chinese-made products as “Made in USA” (for example, in one case, Chinese-made hockey pucks were labeled as “Proudly Made in the USA,” “MADE IN AMERICA,” “100% Made in the USA!,” “100% American Made!”, and sold as “The Only American Made Hockey Puck!”).  What was noteworthy about these cases, was that three Commissioners issued (or joined in) separate opinions addressing the settlements.

Commissioner Slaughter (D) and Chairman Simons (R) took the unusual step of issuing a concurring statement, supporting the cases’ resolution by consent decree, but emphasizing that the FTC should make “strategic use of additional remedies” such as “monetary relief or notice to consumers” to enhance effectiveness going forward, and noting that the FTC has begun a “broad review of whether we are using every available remedy as effectively as possible” to pursue “vigorous enforcement.”

Commissioner Chopra (D), on the other hand, was the lone vote against the three consent settlements.  He argued, quite simply, that “no-money, no-fault settlements” are an insufficient remedy for extreme cases of consumer fraud.  In cases like these, he argued, the FTC should insist that companies admit to fraud before accepting a settlement.  Doing so could make it easier for such companies to be exposed to lawsuits by competitors under the Lanham Act.

Although the current FTC commissioners were all appointed by President Trump, these enforcement developments do not seem to be partisan (or may actually be bipartisan. . .).  Earlier this week, three Democratic Senators (Sens. Brown, Baldwin and Murphy) wrote to the FTC that “no-fault no-money” settlements of “Made in USA” cases are indicative of “lackluster enforcement”, and urged that the FTC begin assessing fines and making wrongdoing companies “admit they lied to the public” when the FTC determines that has been a violation of the guidelines.

As a result, all companies that label, advertising or otherwise market goods in the United States as “Made in USA” (or with any other type of U.S.-origin claim) should be mindful of these developments and appreciate that such claims are likely to face greater scrutiny going forward.  In addition, to the extent you are aware of competitors who may be violating these rules to gain an unfair competitive edge, the FTC appears more receptive than ever to complaints.

We have advised many businesses on these issues in the past, and would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

We hope this his helpful.

Best regards,
Ted

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NAFTA is Dead, Long Live the USMCA!

Dear Friends,

As you have undoubtedly seen by now, last night, an agreement was reached on a revised trade agreement that will replace NAFTA.  The new agreement will be called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (“USMCA”).  The USMCA contains new provisions that were not in NAFTA (e.g., digital trade, data storage location requirements, etc.) and changes to others (e.g., agriculture, financial services, de minimis, certain rules of origin, such as autos, investor protections, trade remedies, etc.).  There are also side letters on how products of Canada and of Mexico will be treated, if the United States proceeds to impose additional duties on autos and auto parts (or other products) under Section 232.  There is a great deal in the revised agreement and all companies with meaningful NAFTA (or now, USMC) activity should be reviewing the proposed text to determine how it impacts their operations.  The text of the agreement is available here.

That said, the agreement has a long way to go before it comes into effect.  

As indicated below, the unofficial deadline to get a deal done was last night.  The deadline was based on the fact that President Pena Nieto leaves office December 1st.  Under U.S. law, President Trump has to publish the text of any agreement 60 days before signing.  Therefore, if the goal was to have the agreement signed before President Nieto leaves office, the text had to be published by September 30th.

Signing the agreement, however, is not the end of the process.  The agreement must be ratified by each of the three countries.  In the United States, that process (which includes a study by the U.S. International Trade Commission on the potential economic impact and consideration by both the House and Senate) will take meaningful time (i.e., months).  As a result, USMCA implementing legislation will not be considered until well after the first of the year. 

In addition, given the mid-term elections in a few weeks and the resulting uncertainty over the composition of the next Congress, it is not clear whether the agreement will have the votes necessary for passage.

It should be an interesting next few months.  Again, our recommendation is that all companies with meaningful cross-border activity with Canada and/or Mexico review the text and start planning for the alternatives (i.e., a new USMCA, an old NAFTA, or possibly no agreement at all).

If you have any questions, or if you would like to discuss these issues further, please let us know.

Best regards,
Ted

The End of NAFTA?

Dear Friends,

President Trump announced earlier today that the U.S. and Mexico have reached a preliminary agreement on a new trade agreement. 

In a meeting with reporters from the Oval Office, and President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico on the phone, President Trump announced that the two countries have reached an agreement on new trade agreement.  According to the President, this agreement will be called the “U.S.-Mexico Trade Agreement” and it will replace NAFTA (which, the President said had bad connotations because it was such a bad deal for the United States).  The Administration intends to notify Congress this coming Friday of its attention to sign this new trade agreement (the Administration is required to notify Congress at least 90 days before signing any trade deal and President Nieto leaves office November 30th, which is ~90 days from Friday, so they are trying to get this in under the wire).

As for Canada, the two presidents seemed to express different views.  President Trump said that negotiations with Canada had not started yet, but would be begin shortly.  He also suggested that they would be short – saying that if Canada wants to negotiate fairly, we will do that; but that, if not, the United States will just impose a duty on Canadian-made automobiles (presumably under the on-going Section 232 investigation).  He also said that any deal could be a separate deal, or it could be integrated in to the new U.S.-Mexico trade agreement.  President Pena repeated stated that Mexico’s intention was to have a trilateral agreement that included Canada (not two separate bilateral deals, as seems to President Trump’s preference).

The fact sheets put out by the USTR on the U.S.-Mexico Trade Agreement are available here.  A video of the meeting in the Oval Office is available on C-SPAN’s website.

While this is a momentous development, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First, the United States (and possibly Mexico?) appears to be willing to move forward without Canada.  It seems increasingly likely that President Trump intends to use his leverage (over autos, in particular) to present Canada with a ‘take it or leave it’ offer.  If Canada is not willing to accept President Trump’s terms, it is not clear whether Mexico would be willing to forego an agreement with the United States (that seems less likely based on today’s meeting).  Second, this process is far from over.  As mentioned above, the United States and Mexico are racing against a political deadline (when President Nieto leaves office November 30th), but that is not the only political consideration.  The U.S. political process/deadlines will also come into play, as mentioned in our previous updates.  It is not clear whether a renegotiated agreement can be finalized and ratified in the time available.  Nevertheless, all companies will meaningful NAFTA-related investment should be considering how today’s announcement is likely to impact their business and begin planning accordingly. 

We hope that this helps.  If you have any questions, please let us know.

Best regards,
Ted

 

Trade Update

Dear Friends,

There has been a lot going on with international trade in recent weeks and we wanted to flag for you a couple of items you may have missed.

The first involves the NAFTA renegotiation.  Rather than engage in discussions involving all three countries at once, the U.S. has focused its efforts on first reaching agreement with Mexico.  U.S. and Mexican officials have been in discussions over the past several weeks and talks are expected to continue this week.  The talks re-started following the Mexican presidential election in July.  This effort seeks to conclude a deal in August, so that the current Mexican president (President Enrique Pena Nieto) can sign the revised deal before he leaves office November 30th (thereby allowing the new president, President-Elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to focus on domestic issues). 

It appears that these bilateral talks are making progress, including on providing an exemption to the Automotive Section 232 investigation for existing Mexican auto plants (it is being reported that the U.S. is not willing to extend that exemption to future/new auto production in Mexico, to make sure that there is an incentive for companies to put new production in the United States).  That said, tough issues remain (e.g., a sunset clause, investor state dispute mechanisms, etc.).  In addition, Canada has not been included in these most recent discussions.  It appears that the U.S. and Mexico are intending to present Canada with a renegotiated agreement and a ‘take it or leave’ offer.  It is not clear how Canada will respond, if such an offer is made.  It should be an interesting couple of weeks.

The second involves the Steel and Aluminum Section 232 investigations.  While these are purportedly ‘national security’ investigations, President Trump announced last week that the U.S. would double the duties imposed on Turkish steel and aluminum imports (from 25% and 10% to 50% and 20%, respectively).  The U.S. Trade Representative also announced that it was reviewing Turkey’s continued eligibility under the Generalized System of Preferences program.   These efforts appear to be in response to Turkey detaining a U.S. citizen who is alleged to be involved in the July 2016 coup attempt. 

These developments show that President Trump is willing to use U.S. trade policy to influence other countries’ positions on unrelated issues.  While that may undercut the legal basis for some of these trade actions (e.g., is doubling the steel duties on imports from Turkey really related to U.S. national security concerns, or is it more of an effort to get Turkey to release Pastor Brunson?  Is the Automotive Section 232 investigation about U.S. national security, or about getting Mexico, Canada, the EU, Japan, Korea, etc. to change their policies on other issues?), and be a different way of doing things than previous administrations, it may be working (at least in the short term; in the longer term, this approach will likely come back to bite us in several different ways).

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

Best regards,
Ted

Miscellaneous Tariff Bill — One Step Closer to Reality

Dear Friends,

In a bit of good trade news, late last week, the Senate passed a slightly modified version of the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill Act of 2018 that had passed the House back in January 2018.  The bill authorizes temporary duty suspensions or reductions for hundreds products (the duty suspensions/reductions are generally effective for 2 years).  The bill also contains a provision extending certain customs user fees. 

The Senate version strikes a small number of products included in the House version, and modifies a handful of others.  As a result, the two versions of the bill will now need to be reconciled (given the small number of changes made by the Senate, the House will likely just vote on/pass the Senate version).  If this occurs, then it appears that the MTB will be sent to the President for signature as a stand-alone bill (rather than waiting to include it as part of a larger trade bill).  Given the concerns some in Congress have raised regarding the President’s recent trade policies – e.g., the handling of the ZTE enforcement case, the processing of Section 232 product exclusion petitions, etc., MTB’s best shot is probably as a stand-alone bill, rather than waiting to be included as part of a larger trade bill, as has been done traditionally.  It will also be interesting to see whether the President is inclined to sign such a bill.  While MTB is generally viewed as providing a limited benefit to U.S. manufacturers (the MTB’s intent is to provide a tariff break to manufacturing inputs that are not available domestically), the President has indicated in the past that MTB primarily benefits Chinese exporters.   

It is important to note that the MTB, if enacted, only impacts the Column 1, General rates of duty for covered articles (i.e., the Most Favored Nation/Normal Trade Relations rates).  The MTB does not change or otherwise impact Section 232 or Section 301 duties; those still apply.

All companies should review the list of products included in the MTB.  The provisions are not (supposed to be) company-specific.  Stated differently, any company that imports an article covered by a MTB description can claim the duty benefit (even if you were not the proponent of the provision).  Also, it is worth mentioning that the process of requesting MTB benefits will re-open in about a year (by October 15, 2019), so it is not too early to start preparing to participate in that process.

We hope this is helpful.  We helped numerous companies get their articles included in the MTB and would be happy to discuss this with you further.  If you have any questions, please let us know.

Best regards,
Ted

A Possible Armistice in the U.S.-EU Trade War

Dear Friends,

Just a short note to let you know that an armistice may be in the works in the U.S.-EU trade war.

President Trump met with European Commission President Juncker at the White House today.  Following the meeting, the two each gave short statements to the media assembled in the Rose Garden. 

President Trump started by saying that the United States and EU were entering a “new phase” in their $1 billion bilateral trade relationship.  He went on to state that the two sides “agreed today . . .to work together towards zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods.”  He also mentioned that the EU had agreed to buy “a lot of soybeans” and to start importing more liquefied natural gas (the EU will be a “massive buyer of LNG”).  The two sides also agreed to start a dialogue on standards to help ease trade/reduce barriers and to work together to reform the WTO and combat unfair trade practices by other countries (read:  China).  He concluded by saying that these negotiations will start “now” and that the two sides will resolve both the U.S. steel and aluminum duties, as well as the EU retaliatory duties.

President Juncker gave a shorter statement that (largely) corroborated what President Trump said.  The two sides would negotiate a zero tariff agreement on industrial goods, cooperate more on energy and agriculture, begin a dialogue on standards and work together to reform the WTO.  He also said there was agreement that, as long as the parties are negotiating, no further tariffs would be imposed and existing tariffs would be reassessed.

This is a positive development.  That said, the devil is always in the details.  For example, it is not yet clear whether the United States will lift the 232 duties on steel and aluminum for EU origin products immediately, or only once an agreement is formally reached, etc.  Stay tuned for more.  In the meantime, if you have any questions, please let us know.

Best regards,
Ted

Section 301 – Product Exclusion Process

Dear Friends,

The U.S. Trade Representative issued a press release this afternoon that includes details on the process for seeking product-based exclusions from the additional duties being imposed on Chinese-origin articles under Section 301 (the first round of those duties went into effect earlier today).  An advance copy of the Federal Register notice containing the specifics for this process is attached for your reference.

 In summary, the product-based exclusion process is as follows:

* all requests to exclude a particular product must be filed by October 9, 2018 (90 days from today);

* there is an opportunity to file comments on such requests, and then for the requester to respond;

* if an exclusion request is granted, it will be effective back to July 6, 2018 (the effective date of this round of additional duties) and will be valid for one year from the date the exclusion approval is published in the Federal Register;

* exclusion requests should cover a “particular product” (this is broader than a just a part number and cannot be based on company-specific characteristics);

* exclusion requests may be filed by “interested persons, including trade associations” (which also suggests that the term “particular product” is meant to be interpreted broadly);

* each request must provide the rationale for the exclusion and, at a minimum, address (1) whether the particular product is available only from China, (2) whether the imposition of additional duties on this product will cause “severe economic harm” to the requestor or to other U.S. interests, and (3) whether the particular product is strategically important or related to China’s industrial policies, including “Made in China 2025”; and

* USTR will evaluate each request individually and take into account “whether the exclusion would undermine the objective of the Section 301 investigation”.

In terms of administering any approvals at the border, the notice also states that requestors may provide information on how U.S. Customs and Border Protection can administer the exclusion (i.e., how will CBP be able to differentiate between products covered by the exclusion and products not covered by the exclusion?).  Interestingly, the USTR’s press release makes it clear that one need not apply in order to benefit from an approval – i.e., approvals are product-specific, not company-specific (“Because exclusions will be made on a product basis, a particular exclusion will apply to all imports of the product, regardless of whether the importer filed a request. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection will apply the tariff exclusions based on the product.”).

The good news here is that (i) there is a product exclusion process (which should help address the impact the Section 301 duties are having on U.S. companies), (ii) petitions can be filed on a “product” basis, rather than on a single sku or part number basis, like with the Section 232 exclusion process, (iii) approvals will be retroactive to when the additional duties first went into effect (although it will be important to keep an eye on liquidation dates to be safe), and (iv) the USTR provided guidance on the factors that will be considered when reviewing requests.

The bad news is that there is no stated timeline for how long it will take the USTR to review and process exclusion requests.  Undoubtedly, the USTR is hoping that by broadening the scope of the petitions and the approvals to “particular products” it will result in fewer petitions being filed than have been filed at Commerce in the steel and aluminum Section 232 cases (i.e., more than 20,000 exclusion petitions filed and only 98 acted on in 3+ months = 51 years of processing time . . . .).  We believe that hope is misplaced and that the USTR will likely receive thousands of exclusion requests. 

Accordingly, it is important that any company impacted by the Section 301 duties, and considering filing a product exclusion petition, do so quickly.  We are assisting numerous clients with this process (which began before today) and would be happy to discuss with you how best to approach this effort now that we have these additional details.

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

Best regards,
Ted