Analysis of USMCA trade agreement (aka NAFTA 2.0)

While Donald Trump portrayed the new US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement as the best in modern history (it should at least be an improvement on NAFTA) it looks largely like pro-trade/globalisation business as usual with some weak tweaks.

Stephen Jacobi:

Despite tweaks here and there, USMCA is unlikely to disturb unduly the extensive integration between the three amigos in North America, except perhaps in terms of the motor vehicle industry where the changes are a little more extensive. Mostly though some of the world’s most competitive supply and value chains will continue as before and that is a good thing for industry, workers and consumers in that part of the world.

Financial Times: Nafta Is Salvaged From Trump’s Wrecking Ball

It could have been a lot worse. When Donald Trump arrived in the White House, it was on the back of frothy rhetoric about the awfulness of trade agreements. He had a special animus against the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, which he called “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere” and which he promised either to change fundamentally or to destroy.

Nearly two years later, Nafta has suffered neither of those fates. Late on Sunday night the US and Canada agreed to revise the deal, clunkily renamed the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. To be sure, the agreement is generally the worse for these revisions. The US Congress, which needs to approve the deal, should try to improve it, or at least not impair it further. But thanks largely to the determined effort by Canada to keep the pact alive and functional, severe damage has been averted.

Scott Lincicome (@scottlincicome) via Twitter says the agreement is more for (Trump’s) political purposes than practical trade improvements:

“By no means is this a perfect (even great) update to an old FTA. BUT it’s not devastating, maintains free-ish trade in most goods/services, modernizes, and reduces uncertainty.”

“For the US, it’s a missed opportunity to liberalize further & probably makes us less competitive. But the bigger issue is: was the last 21 mos of uncertainty/hostility worth what’s basically “NAFTA+TPP+minor good/bad changes” when you could have just had TPP (maybe even amended)?”

Seems obvious to me the answer is “no,” especially since we’re now gonna do the same song-and-dance with Japan and will (for now) miss out on the TPP’s much-larger AsiaPac integration (and China balancing – the clear, unstated point of much of this).

Meanwhile, the 232 tariffs/retaliation remain, & POTUS may be emboldened to use more “national security” threats to get “deals” that are worse than what we could’ve had BUT help him politically (at our allies’ & long-term expense). That may be the worst USMCA precedent of al.

2) There’s actually some trade liberalization in this deal! (Crazy, I know) Canada opens its dairy market a little (keyword: a little – 0.34%); the US in exchange opens up a little on dairy, peanuts, & sugar. Good for consumers (though not ideal free trade). De minimis raised too.

3) NAFTA was old and needed updating; this deal – just like TPP (more on that later) – includes new, relatively-uncontroversial “modernization chapters” on things like SMEs, e-commerce, non-tariff barriers, etc. Needed to be done, though one can quibble on the margins.

4) Finally, it seems (see caveat above) the USA’s WORST demands – procurement, mandatory US content, 5-yr sunset, guest worker visas, “seasonal” trade remedies, safeguards, etc – were either removed entirely or softened to the point of being practically harmless.

I imagine the US dropping these demands, perhaps more than anything else, is why the deal (which looked dead) got done. Remove the “poison pills,” and the bad/ugly stuff is annoying but (probably) worth nixing the uncertainty & keeping NAFTA alive.

Now, the Bad:

1) Ex investment, the deal includes (and in some cases even expands) many of the “regulatory” FTA provisions often criticized by free marketers because they are intrusive, costly or even protectionist: labor, environment, IPR, etc. Some like IP go beyond TPP.

Whether you like these things or they’re dealbreakers is really gonna depend on your litmus tests & the specific provisions. For me, I don’t see anything in these chapters (so far!) that makes me hope the deal dies in Congress.

2) The deal doesn’t kill most of the protectionism NAFTA left. Eg, many US/Canada agriculture (even dairy) restrictions; services & investment “non-conforming measures” (incl the US Jones Act, sigh). Big missed oppty to *expand* trade in a once-a-generation negotiation.

It also doesn’t fix NAFTA’s broken dispute settlement system (Grumble: maybe if certain parties weren’t so focused on making the deal more protectionist, arguing about “national security” & tweeting insults, they could’ve fixed this stuff. Bah.)

3) The 232 side letters. Yes, quota levels are so high 232 tariffs might never apply to Canadian/Mexican autos/parts, but cmon: these are still quotas that still contemplate NATIONAL SECURITY tariffs on CARS in the NA supply chain. That’s bad on multiple (law, econ, principle) levels.

And the 60-day “consultations” letters implicitly accept a finding that NATIONAL SECURITY TARIFFS could apply to close allies and integral parts of our industrial base. I get the politics, but, systemically, this stinks. This should be a blanket exemption. Full stop.

Finally, the Ugly:

1) Rules of Origin. The automotive ROO are managed trade on steroids, requiring originating (duty free) vehicles/parts to have high levels of not just total regional content, but also steel/aluminum purchases, & “high wage” labor. Many other onerous regulations.

Libertarian principles aside, this will likely decrease the competitiveness of the NA auto sector, accelerate offshoring of small car production & increase consumer costs. It also creates new precedent for other US FTAs & cements these rules into the North American supply chain.

2) The glaring omission: US steel/aluminum NATIONAL SECURITY tariffs, plus Can/MX retaliation, remain in place. So the pain (for almost everyone) continues, even though Trump got his “trade deal” – wasn’t that the point? I guess not (not yet at least).

BIG PICTURE:

By no means is this a perfect (even great) update to an old FTA. BUT it’s not devastating, maintains free-ish trade in most goods/services, modernizes, and reduces uncertainty. YES, Trump caused the uncertainty, but it’s better than where we were 2 months ago

Some of the worst provisions, moreover, are delayed or just side letters or could be amended in the future (ROO by proclamation in the USA). Seems Can/MX “caved” in that they found a deal they could live with and just wanted Trump to Leave North America Alone. OK.

For the US, it’s a missed opportunity to liberalize further & probably makes us less competitive. But the bigger issue is: was the last 21 mos of uncertainty/hostility worth what’s basically “NAFTA+TPP+minor good/bad changes” when you could have just had TPP (maybe even amended)?

Seems obvious to me the answer is “no,” especially since we’re now gonna do the same song-and-dance with Japan and will (for now) miss out on the TPP’s much-larger AsiaPac integration (and China balancing – the clear, unstated point of much of this).

Meanwhile, the 232 tariffs/retaliation remain, & POTUS may be emboldened to use more “national security” threats to get “deals” that are worse than what we could’ve had BUT help him politically (at our allies’ & long-term expense). That may be the worst USMCA precedent of all.

Stephen Jacobi (Executive Director of the NZ International Business Forum) has a New Zealand perspective in “The greatest FTA ever negotiated”

The deal does have some implications for New Zealand interests though:

  • US dairy farmers will gain some additional access to the Canadian market, not a great deal more than under the former TPP and certainly not enough to bring down Canada’s extensive supply management for dairy
  • Canada will phase out its “special milk class 7” scheme under which Canada was able to supply subsidised milk powder to global markets – that will be welcomed by New Zealand exporters
  • Canada will rein in British Columbia’s scheme to allow sales of BC wine in supermarkets, while imported wines were relegated to speciality stores – this was a WTO dispute in the making and will assist NZ exporters. It remains to be seen whether Canadian restrictions on the distribution of wine in other provinces will be reformed
  • The operation of controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) will no longer apply between the United States and Canada (but will continue between the United States and Mexico)
  • The US has extended the intellectual property provisions of the former TPP which were stripped out of CPTPP.

The latter two elements make it both easier and harder to negotiate a future FTA between the US and New Zealand. While the elimination of ISDS will be welcomed by the NZ Government, intellectual property remains a real sticking point.

Implications for China and Asia/Pacific:

One other provision is potentially hu-uge. The USMCA parties have agreed to consult and potentially withdraw commitments if one of them negotiates an FTA with a non-market economy (read: China). This is unusual for an FTA and calls into question future Canadian and Mexican support for the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAPP) which has been on APEC’s agenda for over a decade.