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Talking Trade blog

Initial TPP impressions: Market access for goods

Published 06 November 2015

I will post materials over the next few days devoted to unpacking the texts and schedules in different elements of the TPP agreement.  In an overall document with more than 1200 pages of texts, plus thousands of additional pages of schedules, plus 58 special “side letters,” a fuller explanation and understanding of different provisions will take time.  Nevertheless, I will do what I can to provide an early analysis of some striking points from goods, services, investment, and other chapters.  For specific information on how the TPP may affect your business, please contact us to start preparing an individualized analysis.

Overall, for many goods firms, the TPP should produce substantial net benefits.  Tariffs are dropping across the board.  If these rates are translated into retail price reductions, consumers stand to win--sometimes with significant savings possible on future purchases.  

Many currently high rates fall as low as 0 as soon as entry into force (EIF).  Even drops in lower tariff rates can be critical for companies if they trade in low margin or high volume goods.  Most of the tariff reduction benefits for goods from one TPP member country into another TPP member country happen quite rapidly, with the vast majority of tariffs for all members falling to 0 on entry into force.  The rules of origin are the same for all (with a few exceptions) TPP countries—once a firm has qualified a product as TPP content, it can ship anywhere across the TPP without reformulation and receive the lower TPP tariff rates or preferences from the agreement.

TPP trade in goods is not free.  There are a host of potentially complicated issues that must be sorted out.  For sensitive sectors like agriculture, textiles and certain machinery products, using the TPP will provide benefits that may take longer to phase in and are often extremely complicated to understand and use.  However, since many of these highly sensitive products are normally just excluded or carved out of trade agreements, firms may still receive significant cost savings from the agreement compared to the status quo.  Benefits of the TPP are also substantial, as might be expected, for specific markets like Vietnam where tariff rates have been much higher overall (regularly set at 10, 20, or 40%) than other markets. 

There are three key elements of the TPP for any firm trading goods between TPP members.  First, the specific rules related to trade in goods.  This is shown in Chapter 2 of the agreement.  Second, the individual tariff schedules for each of the TPP member countries, plus any other country-specific annexes (that explain, for instance, the tariff rate quotas used by some members and explained further below).  Finally, tariff cuts do not matter if the rules of origin (ROOs) employed in the deal make it difficult or nearly impossible for firms to qualify for tariff benefits.  Hence, firms also need to check the associated ROOs for their goods in Chapter 3 (and any additional annexes related to ROO issues). 

The fine print is important.  For example, buried in the 67 pages of texts for market access for goods is a provision to allow Vietnam to continue to prohibit the importation of a wide range of used items.  Malaysian firms may be able to access new markets overseas, but will have to check carefully the long list of allowable export duties, taxes and other charges that may negate any new tariff savings.  Food and beverage producers will need to be aware of rules around food and food safety (SPS) in Chapter 7 that may impact their goods.

With these caveats in mind, many of the textual provisions in the agreement are quite helpful for companies.  For instance, firms can receive, repair and return goods without having to pay new duties and companies can more freely temporarily import goods for trade shows or performances.  The rules tighten up the procedures for countries that want to impose import or export license requirements.  There are many provisions related to trade in food and agricultural products intended to provide greater certainty for farmers and producers.

The tariffs schedules are extraordinarily complicated in the TPP.  Every country has their own format for showing the tariff benefits.  For some countries, like Malaysia, the schedule shows basically four columns:  the HS or product code, the product description, the current or base rate of tariffs, and a staging category that applies to all TPP members (with some variations in TRQs).  Many other schedules break out the TPP members specifically, with columns for each individual member country.  While most of these columns are blank (same benefit applies to the whole lot), some have country-specific commitments.

Equally confusing, because the TPP negotiators cannot currently say when the TPP will come into force (fastest schedule could be late 2016 or 60 days after last of the 12 parties finish domestic ratification or potentially 2018 or beyond—see entry into force rules in Chapter 30), the schedules are written with codes.  A bewilderingly complex set of codes is explained in the country specific general notes to each member’s annex.  A notation like B4 in the American schedules means that whatever the current tariff is, it will be cut down in four equal stages to arrive at 0 duties on the first day of the 4th year of the agreement.  [I assume that, during the 60 day period between signing and entry into force, all these notations will be converted to actual dates in the document, making them easier to understand.]

For many firms, the level of tariff reductions is impressive.  Vietnam, for instance, will drop tariffs to 0 on entry into force for items currently set at 18-20% on most fish varieties; fruits from 30%; or many paints with 24% tariffs.  Mexico’s numbers look extremely impressive with many categories dropping from 20% or higher to 0 on entry into force.  [Of course, since Mexico has so many existing FTAs, not all firms currently pay MFN rates, making some of these tariff cuts less impressive in practice.]  Australia appears to have been highly ambitious, with nearly all tariffs dropping to 0 immediately and fewer complicated mechanisms for the remainder. 

And then we get to the United States and Japan.  While there are some very impressive tariff reductions included in these schedules (note that Japan’s schedules as posted are incomplete with tariffs ending at product category 65 out of 99), there are also a host of complications embedded within the schedules. 

For example, both countries take substantial advantage of tariff rate quotas (TRQs) to shield domestic producers.  Under TRQs, TPP members will have a set quantity of a good that can be sold at a lower tariff.  Everything above this rate is charged a significantly higher duty.  For both in- and out-of-quota rates, the TPP does cut down the levels and usually provides some (or all) of the TPP members with additional access to the in-quota allocation.  The complexity of this system can be shown by a quick glance at the TRQ annexes for various individual members.  Japan’s TRQ schedule is 79 pages long.  The annex for the United States is 49 pages in length.

To make matters worse, both countries also have a separate document, an annex on tariff differentials.  These are essentially the marking rules first used in NAFTA that are intended to provide an additional layer of protection to sensitive sectors.  I am way over my own word count quota for this post and cannot go into more detail here, but just note that companies will also need to examine these annexes carefully to determine how they might apply to their inventory for shipment into the U.S. and Japan.

Most of the rules of origin (ROOs in Chapter 3) are product specific.  This means that product categories have a corresponding ROO shown in the annex that must be followed to receive the tariff cut.   In many cases, the TPP requires that the good be classified into a different tariff category (usually at the 4 or 6 digit level which is less helpful for firms) than the original inputs to qualify.  In others, the agreement requires a certain percentage of content from TPP members to be included in the final product.  Note that textiles and footwear into the U.S. (in particular) have very complicated ROOs that must be followed to qualify for some very substantial reductions in tariff levels.

To sum up, the TPP is likely to provide a range of benefits for many firms.  The cost savings for some companies could be significant and firms might become highly competitive in new, untapped markets.  But the complexity of the agreement means that firms will also have to expend significant effort to comb through this massive agreement to determine which benefits apply and which might not.  Firms may have to shift sourcing and production to take full advantage of the TPP, which means that companies should start planning for TPP entry into force now.

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Dr. Deborah Elms is Head of Trade Policy at the Hinrich Foundation in Singapore.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she was the Executive Director and Founder of the Asian Trade Centre (ATC). She was also President of the Asia Business Trade Association (ABTA) and the Board Director of the Asian Trade Centre Foundation (ATCF).

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