ICD 2020 – #MakeTradeWork

Picture courtesy of the WCO

To mark International Customs Day 2020 – focusing on the theme of ‘fostering Sustainability for People, Prosperity and the Planet’, the following article from the Spring 2018 edition of World Trade Matters by Jan Hoffmann, the Chief of the Trade Logistics Branch, Division on Technology and Logistics at UNCTAD, is relevant. The article discusses global trade facilitation reforms, the digitalisation of trade and measures towards ensuring long-term sustainability in the maritime industry. 

Confronted with growing populism and a surge in protectionist measures recorded by the WTO, policy makers and enterprises are struggling to avoid a backlash in international trade. At UNCTAD’s Trade Logistics Branch, we support these endeavours by helping to make trade work better. Through trade facilitation reforms, the promotion of digitalisation, and ensuring the long-term sustainability of international transport, we aim at ensuring that the international movement of goods is not confronted with unnecessary obstacles and costs. 

A multilateral agreement to facilitate international trade

Under the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), developing countries commit to implement a number of very practical measures that make trade easier and more transparent. Countries are obliged to publish duties and procedures on the web, traders can transmit their declarations prior to the arrival of the goods, payments can be made electronically, and fees and charges must not become hidden taxes to generate income for the government. These are but some of the 37 concrete measures grouped into 12 Articles of the TFA. They are all useful and help make trade more efficient. 

However, many of these measures involve an initial investment or reforms that require human and financial resources to start with, which developing countries many not have. The good news is that the TFA also includes a novel mechanism – the so called “Special and Differential Treatment” – that helps developing countries plan and acquire the necessary capacity prior to being fully committed to comply with all 12 Articles. Concretely, the mechanism puts the developing countries in the position – and obligation – to analyse and notify their own implementation capacity. At UNCTAD, we are working closely with the developing countries to enable them to do so. Our main counterpart in this endeavour are the National Trade Facilitation Committees (NTFCs) that each country must set up under the TFA. UNCTAD’s Empowerment Programme for NTFCs includes training and knowledge development for the members of the NTFC, combined with advisory services and the development of a Roadmap of TFA implementation. 

By the same token, UNCTAD also supports developing countries in setting up Trade Information Portals. Under the TFA, members of the WTO are obliged to make relevant information on tariffs and trade procedures available on-line. UNCTAD’s Trade Information Portals not only help countries become compliant with this obligation, but in the process of analysing and publishing applicable trade procedures, a Trade Information Portal effectively helps countries identify the potential for the further simplification of procedures. Thanks to these new insights, NTFCs can then develop programmes and reforms that subsequently ensure the further simplification of procedures. 

Technological progress will never be as slow as today

My favourite provision of the TFA is Article 10.1., as it provides for a dynamic dimension of the Agreement. According to this article, countries need to minimize “the incidence and complexity of import, export, and transit formalities”, continuously “review” requirements, keep “reducing the time and cost of compliance for traders and operators”, and always choose “the least trade restrictive measure”. As such, even if a country is compliant with all TFA provisions today, countries will need to continue monitoring if existing procedures are still appropriate in view of technological or regulatory developments. 

As trade becomes increasingly digitalised, and new technologies which do not yet exist will be developed, it will be important that governments continuously revise and review the applicable rules and regulations. 

Digitalisation comes in stages. First, we optimize existing procedures, making use of cargo tracking, the Internet of Things, blockchain et al. Second, new businesses are developed which could not exist without the new technologies; new platforms come into being and we see more “uberisation”. Finally, there is transformation and science fiction; still in our lifetime Artificial Intelligence will overtake human capabilities to manage international trade and its logistics. 

But let us take one step at a time. At UNCTAD, we support developing countries through eTrade readiness assessments, the development and upgrade of technological solutions in Customs automation and Single Windows, and by providing a Forum for our members to analyse and discuss the challenges that come with digitalisation. We encourage the development of global standards that allow for interoperability among new systems. The challenge for policy makers it to encourage private sector investments in new technologies and solutions, while ensuring that no new monopolies emerge that might exclude smaller players.  

And it has to be sustainable

While we aim at ensuring continued growth in international trade, there is a catch. The transport of this trade encompasses increasing externalities, such as pollution, green-house-gas emissions, and congestion. 

Ports need to minimise social and environmental externalities. Many port cities are among the most polluted places to live, as ships burn heavy oil, and delivering trucks produce noise and cause traffic congestions. In addition, ports need to be resilient in the face of disruptions and damages caused by natural disasters and climate change impacts. 

International transport, including shipping, needs to play a larger role in addressing global warming and contribute to mitigating the carbon emissions that are causing climate change. Shipping emits less carbon dioxide (CO2) per ton-mile than other modes of transport, but then due to its sheer volume it also produces many ton-miles. Would it be possible that the industry could be charged by its main regulatory body not per ship tonnage (as is currently the case), but per tonne of CO2 emission? 

Currently, the International Maritime Organization is funded proportional to the tonnage registered under the members’ flags. Like this, Panama, Marshall Islands and Liberia pay for the largest share of the IMO budget – and in the end, this is passed on to the ship-owner, who in turn passes this on to the shipper, who will charge the consumer. This is a good established mechanism that could be expanded to also internalize the external costs of CO2 emissions. 

Being the most globalized of all businesses, maritime transport should consider adopting a global regime that helps further internalize its environmental externalities – to ensure prosperity for all.  

It is all about efficiency

Investing in trade facilitation reforms, making intelligent use of the latest technologies, and ensuring that externalities are internalized are all several sides of the same coin. Trade efficiency is necessary to promote an open international trading system. It requires a continuous effort by policy makers to continuously review current procedures, apply the most appropriate technological solutions, and support an efficient allocation of scarce resources. 

Source: Jan Hoffman, UNCTAD – originally published in World Trade Matters, Spring Edition, 2018

China’s most ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative

View the high resolution version here!

Visual Capitalist – Costing between $4-8 trillion and affecting 65 countries, China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is the granddaddy of all megaprojects.

By the time of it’s estimated completion in 2049, OBOR will stretch from the edge of East Asia all the way to East Africa and Central Europe, and it will impact a lengthy list of countries that account for 62% of the world’s population and 40% of its economic output.

Today’s infographic from Raconteur helps visualize the initiative’s tremendous size, scale, and potential impact on Asian infrastructure.

The tangible concept behind OBOR is to build an extensive network of infrastructure – including railways, roads, pipelines, and utility grids – that help link China to the rest of Asia, as well as Africa and Europe. 

This multi-trillion dollar project will fill the infrastructure gap that currently inhibits economic growth potential on the world’s largest continent, but it has other important objectives as well. By connecting all of these economies together, China is hoping to become the gatekeeper for a new platform international trade cooperation and integration.

But that’s not all: if China’s economic corridor does what it’s supposed to, the countries in it will see more social and cultural links, financial cooperation, and a merger of policy goals and objectives to accomplish. 

Naturally, this will expand the clout and influence of China, and it may even create the eventual scaffolding for the renminbi to flourish as a trade currency, and eventually a reserve currency.

One Road or Roadblock?

When billions of dollars are at play, the stakes become higher. Although some countries agree with the OBOR initiative in principle – how it plays out in reality is a different story.

Most of the funding for massive deep-water ports, lengthy railroads, and power plants will be coming from the purse strings of Chinese companies. Some will be grants, but many are taking the form of loans, and when countries default there can be consequences.

In Pakistan, for example, a deep-water port in Gwadar is being funded by loans from Chinese banks to the tune of $16 billion. The only problem? The interest rate is over 13%, and if Pakistan defaults, China could end up taking all sorts of collateral as compensation – from coal mines to oil pipelines.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka was unable to pay its $8 billion loan for the Hambantota Port. In the middle of 2017, the country gave up the controlling interest in the port to a state-owned company in China in exchange for writing off the debt. China now has a 99-year lease on the asset – quite useful, since it happens to be right in the middle of one of China’s most important shipping lanes to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Natural Opposition

While most economies in Asia are willing to accept some level of risk to develop OBOR, there is one country that is simply not a fan of the megaproject.

India, a very natural rival to China, has a few major qualms:

  • The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) goes right through Kashmir, a disputed territory
  • Chinese investment in maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean could displace India’s traditional regional dominance
  • India sees the OBOR megaproject as lacking transparency

Meanwhile, with neighboring states such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan getting billions of dollars of investment from Chinese state-run companies, it likely creates one more issue that Indian Prime Minister Modi is not necessarily happy about, either.

Source: Original article by Jeff Desjardins, Visual Capitalist, published on 15 March 2018

AU – Online tool to remove Trade Barriers in Africa goes live

An online platform developed by UNCTAD and the African Union to help remove non-tariff barriers to trade in Africa became operational on 13 January.

Traders and businesses moving goods across the continent can now instantly report the challenges they encounter, such as quotas, excessive import documents or unjustified packaging requirements.

The tool, tradebarriers.africa, will help African governments monitor and eliminate such barriers, which slow the movement of goods and cost importers and exporters in the region billions annually.

An UNCTAD report shows that African countries could gain US$20 billion each year by tackling such barriers at the continental level – much more than the $3.6 billion they could pick up by eliminating tariffs.

“Non-tariff barriers are the main obstacles to trade between African countries,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, director of UNCTAD’s trade division.

“That’s why the success of the African Continental Free Trade Area depends in part on how well governments can track and remove them,” she said, referring to the agreement signed by African governments to create a single, continent-wide market for goods and services.

The AfCFTA, which entered into force in May 2019, is expected to boost intra-African trade, which at 16% is low compared to other regional blocs. For example, 68% of the European Union’s trade take place among EU nations. For the Asian region, the share is 60%.

The agreement requires member countries to remove tariffs on 90% of goods. But negotiators realized that non-tariff barriers must also be addressed and called for a reporting, monitoring and elimination mechanism.

The online platform built by UNCTAD and the African Union is a direct response to that demand.

Hands-on training

Complaints logged on the platform will be monitored by government officials in each nation and a special coordination unit that’s housed in the AfCFTA secretariat.

The unit will be responsible for verifying a complaint. Once verified, officials in the countries concerned will be tasked with addressing the issue within set timelines prescribed by the AfCFTA agreement.

Hands-on training

UNCTAD and the African Union trained 60 public officials and business representatives from across Africa on how to use the tool in December 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya.

They practiced logging and responding to complaints, in addition to learning more about non-tariff barriers and their effects on trade and business opportunities.

“The AfCFTA non-tariff barriers mechanism is a transparent tool that will help small businesses reach African markets,” said Ndah Ali Abu, a senior official at Nigeria’s trade ministry, who will manage complaints concerning Africa’s largest economy.

UNCTAD and the African Union first presented tradebarriers.africa in July 2019 during the launch of the AfCFTA’s operational phase at the 12th African Union Extraordinary Summit in Niamey, Niger.

Following the official presentation, they conducted multiple simulation exercises with business and government representatives to identify any possible operational challenges.

Lost in translation

One of the challenges was linguistic. Africa is home to more than 1,000 languages. So the person who logs a complaint may speak a different language from the official in charge of dealing with the issue.

Such would be the case, for example, if an English-speaking truck driver from Ghana logged a complaint about the number of import documents required to deliver Ghanaian cocoa to importers in Togo – a complaint that would be sent to French-speaking Togolese officials.

“For the online tool to be effective, communication must be instantaneous,” said Christian Knebel, an UNCTAD economist working on the project.

The solution, he said, was to add a plug-in to the online platform that automatically translates between Arabic, English, French, Portuguese and Swahili – languages that are widely spoken across the continent. More languages are being added.

UNCTAD’s work on the AfCFTA non-tariff barriers mechanism is funded by the German government.

Source: UNCTAG.ORG, 17 January 2020

Top 20 Easiest Countries for Doing Business

Another great infographic from the folks at Visual Capitalist. For the full diagram please click their webpage at this link.

Embracing Blockchain for Cross-border Trade

In August of 2019, both the United States and Thailand announced their plans to test blockchain applications for tracking and managing shipments. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is planning to test a blockchain application against their current system to determine how distributed ledger technology (DLT) can improve its existing processes. Thailand, on the other hand, plans to use IBM’s blockchain-based logistics platform Tradelens to improve customs processes such as data sharing.

Originally developed in a joint venture between IBM and logistics giant Maersk, Tradelens seeks to streamline processes in the global shipping industry by making the flow of information occur in real-time. The blockchain platform is reported to currently process about half of the world’s shipping data.

These moves highlight countries’ increasing interest in employing blockchain technology in their customs and border operations. The Tradelens website says its ecosystem comprises over 100 different organizations including carriers, ports, terminal operators, third-party logistics firms, and freight forwarders. More specifically, a map on the Tradelens website suggests that about 60 ports and terminals worldwide are directly integrated with TradeLens.

Elsewhere, the Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union (TAXUD), which develops policies and operational systems for the European Customs Union, explored the applicability of blockchain in customs and taxation with a focus on utilizing blockchain as a notarization service.

The Union is looking into using blockchain to digitize ATA Carnet, an international customs document used in 87 countries for temporarily admitting goods duty-free. A pilot project conducted in collaboration with the International Chamber of Commerce World Chambers Federation (ICC WCF), was successfully tested in 2018. 

The ICC WCF, a body of the ICC that helps facilitate mutually beneficial partnerships between ICC members, has been working with different customs authorities to develop solutions for converting ATA Carnets into electronic documents.

About 80 countries around the world have developed authorized economic operator (AEO) programs and signed a mutual recognition agreement (MRA), all in an effort to streamline cargo security. Under such arrangements, individual countries identify and approve trustworthy logistics operators that pose a low risk in security and share the approval information with participating countries. 

This allows countries to piggyback on the security checks of other countries to make customs operations more efficient. However, a few problems have arisen with the program. 

  • There are information leakage risks associated with the conventional way of sharing AEO data by email. While a sender’s email server may be encrypted, there is no guarantee that the receiver’s is as well, and vice versa.
  • Data sharing is not real-time, but monthly or at an agreed-upon interval. This limits the speed at which information on new or suspended AEOs can reach all participants.

To avoid the aforementioned problems as well as achieve additional time and cost savings on security procedures, customs administrations in Mexico, Peru and Costa Rica are working with the Inter-American Development Bank to develop a blockchain application called Cadena.

The move by governments around the world to employ blockchain to improve cross-border trade marks a step toward paperless customs processes, which originally began with the digitization of information flows by making trade-related data and documents available and exchangeable electronically. For all the improvements they’ve brought to paper-heavy processes, traditional electronic data exchange systems still face the challenges of authenticity and the unavailability of real-time data exchange.

For instance, the Netherlands and China launched a five-year project in 2010 to test the applicability of electronic sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) certificates. A World Economic Forum white paper titled “Paperless Trading: How Does It Impact the Trade System?” noted that concerns around the authenticity of the electronic documents arose. This necessitated the adoption of electronic signature systems and a whole new legal framework that recognized the electronic signature.

Still, the entire process requires longer procedures and the introduction of new types of intermediaries — e-signature providers, for instance. Moreover, low-income countries, the trade costs of which remain high compared to high-income countries as according to World Bank data, may not have the budget to implement several new systems for data and document digitization. They still need to invest in better customs infrastructure. 

Blockchain, on the other hand, if implemented in border protection, will ensure real-time availability and immutability of customs documents while saving considerable costs on excessive paperwork.

Source: Original article titled: “Blockchain Adoption as a Cure for Cross-Border Trading“, authored by Craig Adeyanju, Cointelegraph.com, 2019.09.28

SADC Border posts under the spotlight

GEC

Land borders in the SADC region are critical zones for unlocking economic development, regional value chains and trade. In this light the Global Economic Governance Africa programme is working with the Zimbabwe Trade Forum and the University of Zambia to look at two case studies on the border regions around Beitbridge and Chirundu. The borders, between South Africa and Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe and Zambia, represent critical links in the North-South Corridor and are vital in both regional development initiatives as well as bilateral ones between the countries.

The seminar, attended by trade experts, policy makers and researchers from South Africa and the region discussed the field research findings of a study at the Beitbridge and Chirundu border posts conducted on behalf of the programme in June 2018.

The following presentation documents should be of interest to all parties concerned with inter regional trade and trade facilitation development initiatives.

It is also worthwhile to visit Tutwa Consulting’s webpage as it explains how the surveys were conducted and provides salient features in relation to each of the border posts concerned which may not necessarily be apparent in the presentation documents as such.

Source: Tutwa Consulting

SA Documentary on Rhino Poaching wins International Award

STROOP – Journey into the Rhino Horn War, is getting a lot of attention all the way around the world at the moment and its clear to see why!

The film tells the shocking and touching story of the ongoing poaching of the rhinos and the trade in its coveted horn. Four years in the making, this labour of love saw de Bod and director Susan Scott sell their houses, leave their jobs and move in with their mothers in order to document what is happening in the fight to save the rhino from extinction.

The locally made documentary film, has just been awarded the 2018 Green Tenacity Award by the judges of the Eighth Annual San Francisco Green Film Festival, coming ahead of the film’s world premiere at the festival which will run from Thursday September 6 through to Friday, September 14. STROOP was one of 26 final films selected out of 350 submissions and one of five to win awards – a huge credit for producer, Bonné de Bod.

It was supposed to be a 6-month project but soon turned in to a dangerous and intense expedition for which the passionate duo often found themselves in immense danger. In an exclusive first, de Bod and Scott filmed special ranger units inside the world-famous Kruger National Park and at the home of the white rhino, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park and travelled undercover to the dangerous back rooms of wildlife traffickers and dealers in China and Vietnam.

The result is a hard-hitting – and ultimately moving – documentary that challenges and shocks viewers.

Says Bonné “We are over the moon at receiving this prestigious award and it makes all our hard work and dedication to this film that much more worthwhile. Hopefully, it also means that the recognition will create additional awareness and encourage even more people to see the film when it releases.”

According to the festival’s criteria, the Green Tenacity Award is given to filmmakers “who show great tenacity in exploring crucial environmental issues in their work.”

Made solely with crowdfunding and grants – the film shows why this hunted and targeted species deserves to live in dignity, free from exploitation by illegal traders, poachers, money men and corrupt governments.

STROOP – Journey into the Rhino Horn War will premiere in South Africa in February 2019 after its film festival run overseas.

Source: sandtonchronicle.co.za, 22 August 2018.

Australia and Singapore sign Customs Mutual Recognition Agreement

singapore_australia-flags

Companies that have been certified by the Singapore Customs for adhering to robust security practices can now enjoy a faster customs clearance process for goods that they export to Australia, the agency for trade facilitation and revenue enforcement said on Thursday.

In addition to the faster clearance process, certified Singapore firms will also be subject to reduced documentary and cargo inspections. The same will be applied to Australian companies that are certified by the Australian Border Force (ABF) for goods that they export to Singapore.

The move was recognised under a Mutual Recognition Arrangement (MRA) of Authorised Economic Operator programmes signed by Singapore Customs and the ABF on May 31 that aims to foster closer customs collaboration and elevate bilateral trade ties between the two countries.

The MRA comes under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed between Singapore and Australia in 2015. In addition, Singapore is the first Asean country to sign an MRA with Australia.

In its media statement on Thursday, Singapore Customs said: “The Australia-Singapore MRA recognises the compatibility of the supply chain security measures implemented by companies certified under Singapore Customs’ Secure Trade Partnership (STP) programme and the trusted companies of the ABF’s Australian Trusted Trader programme.”

The agreement was signed on Thursday by Singapore’s director-general of customs, Ho Chee Pong, and the commissioner of ABF and comptroller-general of customs, Michael Outram, in Singapore.

Mr Ho said: “The signing of this MRA reinforces the commitment of both our customs administrations to maintain the security of regional and global supply chains, and to facilitate legitimate trade undertaken by Authorised Economic Operators in both countries.

“As major trading partners, I am confident that this new MRA of our respective Authorised Economic Operator programmes will bring about much benefit to our businesses and boost bilateral trade.”

The signing of the Authorised Economic Operator-MRA will further strengthen closer cooperation at the borders and smoothen the passage of goods between our two countries of trusted traders.

Source: The Business Times (Singapore), original article by Navin Sregantan, 31 May 2018

 

WCO News – February 2018

wconews_85

This edition of WCO News features a special dossier on the theme chosen by the WCO for 2018, namely “A secure business environment for economic development”, with articles presenting initiatives and related projects that contribute to creating such an environment. The articles touch on authorized economic operators, national committees on trade facilitation, coordinated border management, performance measurement, e-commerce, data analysis, and partnerships with the private sector.

For sub-Saharan African readers, look out for the write up of the Customs systems interconnectivity and the challenges and opportunities for Customs administrations in the SACU region.

Other highlights include articles on Customs systems interconnectivity in the Southern African Customs Union, on the experience of a young Nigerian Customs officer who participated in the Strategic Management and Intellectual Property Rights Programme at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University, on how the WCO West and Central Africa region is using data to monitor Customs modernization in the region, and on the benefits that can be derived by facilitating transit procedures.

Source: WCO, February 2018

US-China: First Agricultural Commodity traded through Blockchain

bulk-carrier

The first full agricultural commodity transaction using a blockchain platform has been completed by Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC), Shandong Bohi Industry, ING, Societe Generale and ABN Amro.

The trade included a full set of digitalized documents (sales contract, letter of credit, certificates) and automatic data-matching, thus avoiding task duplication and manual checks. Time spent on processing documents and data was reduced five-fold. The companies involved said that other benefits included the ability to monitor the operation’s progress in real time, data verification, reduced risk of fraud and a shorter cash cycle.

In the test, the Easy Trading Connect platform was used to execute a soybean shipment transaction from the U.S. to China. The transaction involved user participation on the blockchain-based platform by teams from Louis Dreyfus Company as the seller and Bohi as the buyer, with banks issuing and confirming the letter of credit. Russell Marine Group and Blue Water Shipping also participated in the process, issuing all required certificates. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided valuable insights on how to include phyto-sanitary certificates in the process.

The Easy Trading Connect platform was first validated with an oil cargo transaction in February 2017, with the subsequent launch in November 2017 of an energy consortium aiming to offer blockchain-based services to the energy sector. The same principle was then applied to develop a blockchain-based platform tailored to agricultural commodities trading.

ING, Societe Generale, ABN Amro and other major industry players such as LDC have a long-term ambition to improve security and operational efficiency in the commodity trading and finance sector through digitalization and standardization.

“One thing is clear: the digital revolution is transforming the commodities sector,” said Gonzalo Ramírez Martiarena, Chief Executive Officer of LDC. “Distributed ledger technologies have been evolving rapidly, bringing more efficiency and security to our transactions, and immense expected benefits for our customers and everyone along the supply chain as a result. The next step is to harness the potential for further development through the adoption of common standards, and welcome a truly new era of digital trade flow management on a global level.”

Source: Maritime Executive, 3 January 2018 (Image credit: David Hundley (LDC)

Customs Community Adopts Resolution on Cross Border E-Commerce

Luxor Resolution.png

The WCO Policy Commission (PC) has seized the momentum garnered in the domain of electronic commerce and has unanimously adopted the Luxor Resolution at its meeting held this week from 4 to 6 December 2017 in the Egyptian city which gives its name to the Resolution.

The Resolution, developed in close collaboration with all stakeholders, outlines the guiding principles for cross-border E-Commerce addressing eight critical aspects, notably Advance Electronic Data and Risk Management; Facilitation and Simplification; Safety and Security; Revenue Collection; Measurement and Analysis; Partnerships; Public Awareness, Outreach and Capacity Building; and Legislative Frameworks.

The Resolution is aimed at helping Customs and other government agencies, businesses, and other stakeholders in the cross-border E-Commerce supply chain to understand, coordinate and better respond to the current and emerging challenges.

Additionally, and taking into consideration the relevance of the topic and the need to better position the work of the WCO and coordinate ongoing efforts, the PC has also issued a Communiqué to the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference (MC11), the Organization’s highest decision-making body, attended by trade ministers and other senior officials from the WTO’s 164 Members, that will take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 10 to 13 December 2017.

The Communiqué strongly reaffirms the WCO’s leadership in providing policy and operational frameworks for the effective management of cross-border E-Commerce from both a facilitation and a control perspective, and clearly demonstrates its strong commitment to supporting the WTO’s Work Programme on E-Commerce, moving forward. Source: WCO 

  • Access the Resolution on Guiding Principles here!
  • Access the Communique here!
  • Visit the WCO’s Cross-Border E-Commerce webpage here!

Globalisation to give way to “localisation”

global-local

Global trade has reached its peak and globalisation is giving way to localisation, which is one of the most “profound changes” currently facing the global economy, says Paul Donovan, global chief economist at UBS Wealth.

Accounting for about a quarter of the world’s GDP, global trade is at a record high. “This is as good as it gets. What we are now starting to see is localisation returning to the manufacturing sector,” Donovan said on Tuesday, speaking at a Sasfin Wealth event.

Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, collectively referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, mean that factories are mechanising, and are placed closer to companies’ consumer markets.

Swedish retailer H&M is using robotics, manufacturing most of its clothing in Europe, not Asia, enabling it to respond to consumer demand more effectively, Donovan said.

This allows the fast-fashion front-runner to quickly respond to consumer demand and even unseasonal weather.

“The fourth industrial revolution will dramatically alter investment, economics and society.”

At SA’s recent inaugural Singularity University event, disruption innovation expert David Roberts said that 40% of the S&P 500 companies would disappear in the next 10 years as exponential technologies disrupted a host of industries. The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company had decreased from 67 years to 15 years, he said.

While only about 9% of jobs would disappear altogether, automation and digitisation would affect about 40% of jobs, said Donovan. This would require people and companies to adapt to new ways of doing things.

“If your university degree is reliant on memorising a textbook, you are a low-skilled worker. We need companies and countries with workforces that are flexible.”

Donovan predicted a return to the imperial model of trade, where raw materials and intellectual property were imported, while “everything else” happened close to the consumer. “Raw materials will still be globalised, but finished products will be declining as a force for global trade in the years ahead.”

Source: Originally published in Business Day, Ziady. H, September 6, 2017. Globalisation gives way to localisation, in profound change, UBS economist says.

Transfer Pricing – the culprit in base erosion and profit shifting

transfer pricing

Tax collection from transfer pricing audits has become more common in Africa, with little sign that it will abate in the near future.

The transfer pricing policies of many multinational companies have attracted widespread attention in the recent past, to the extent that it is considered the “criminal child of tax”.

Transfer pricing is the way a company prices goods and services supplied to a company within the same group. The price should be aligned to a price that the company would offer to a third party.

Nishana Gosai, senior transfer pricing executive at Baker McKenzie, and former head of the transfer pricing unit at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), says that despite having transfer policies in place, most large multinational companies find it difficult to control every aspect of its business. There is a rising perception that transfer-pricing transgressions are criminal and should be met with criminal sanction.

In Tanzania, failure to keep transfer pricing documentation is considered an offence. The punishment is a fine of $30,000 or six months’ imprisonment, or both.

In SA, the revenue authority settled a transfer-pricing dispute with a subsidiary of Kumba Iron Ore to the tune of R2.5bn in 2016. The initial assessment was R6.5bn.

In Tanzania, a large mining company recently received a $190bn tax assessment.

Transfer pricing has been regarded as the major culprit in base erosion and profit shifting (Beps) in which profits are shifted from high-tax jurisdictions to lower tax jurisdictions to limit a global group’s tax exposure.

Gosai emphasises that transfer pricing is not an exact science. It requires judgment and discretion. No one can define the exact price. Finding middle ground requires pragmatism. Information is important in any transfer-pricing dispute, but it seems the burden of proof is becoming insurmountable, she says.

“We are moving into a space where tax administrations are demanding documented proof and evidence to substantiate routine commercial realities,” Gosai says.

Andrew Wellsted, head of the tax team at Norton Rose Fulbright, says that if a company’s affairs or record-keeping are not up to scratch, it faces a long, time-consuming process of getting what the revenue authorities require.

If taxpayers have followed incorrect practices, knowingly or otherwise, it will expose them to tax liabilities and potential disputes. Irrespective of any actual legislative changes, 93% of respondents believe that tax authorities will increase tax audit assessments as a result of proposed Beps initiatives.

“If the audit is conducted in an aggressive fashion, it can be very disruptive to the day-to-day operations of the taxpayer. This needs to be carefully managed by taxpayers and the authorities,” says Wellsted.

Deloitte recently published its survey on the views of multinational companies regarding the greater interest in “responsible tax” and Beps among the media, and political and activist groups.

In the 2017 survey, 460 people in 38 countries responded. The results show that respondents are expecting a major effect on their compliance requirements due to the additional reporting requirements arising from the Beps action plans developed and published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The survey shows that 94% of the respondents believe that the additional transfer-pricing reporting requirements will substantially increase their compliance burden when it comes to corporate tax.

More than 90% of the respondents agree that tax structures are under greater scrutiny by tax administrations than a year ago.

“Irrespective of any actual legislative changes, 93% of respondents believe that tax authorities will increase tax audit assessments as a result of proposed Beps initiatives,” Deloitte’s survey found.

Gosai says many multinationals make the mistake of not fully understanding what they are submitting to a revenue authority, the context of such submissions, the potential ways that it could be interpreted by a revenue official and, most importantly, that once submitted, such disclosures cannot be retracted.

Companies tend to over-comply when faced with a request for information from SARS, especially if it is not specific about its scope. There is a danger that information offered by the taxpayer that is not relevant to the question asked may lead to further questions or may create the wrong impression.

Most tax disputes turn either on a legal interpretation of legislation, or a factual issue. The dispute is often centred on whether or not an arm’s-length price (the price offered to an unconnected third party) has been charged.

“This involves complex and detailed economic analysis and is invariably very subjective,” Wellsted says.

“Thus finding the objectively right answer as to what an arm’s-length price could be, is almost impossible,” he says.

Source: Originally published in Business Day, Visser. A, published as “Multinationals face quandary over transfer pricing”, September 6, 2017.

Chamber of Mines goes after UNCTAD over faulty trade misinvoicing report

Chamber of Mines

The report claimed there was widespread misinvoicing in primary commodities in developing countries, including South Africa.

The Chamber of Mines on Tuesday called on the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to withdraw its report on trade misinvoicing and acknowledge its shortcomings, saying that the prestigious agency had failed to collect its data accurately.

This comes after the Chamber released the third and final report in a series commissioned to examine the July 2016 UNCTAD report that claimed there was widespread misinvoicing in primary commodities in developing countries, including South Africa.

Also read Maya Forestater’s blog post Misinvoicing or misunderstanding? for an incisive explanation regarding the UN’s claims in its recent report Trade Misinvoicing in Primary Commodities in Developing Countries.

The UNCTAD report titled “Trade Misinvoicing in Primary Commodities in Developing Countries: The cases of Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia”, claimed to have found widespread under-invoicing which, it alleged, was designed by commodities producers to evade tax and other entitlements due to the fiscal authorities.

UNCTAD said some commodity dependent developing countries were losing as much as 67 percent of their exports worth billions of dollars to trade misinvoicing.

For South Africa, the report calculated cumulative under-invoicing over the period 2000-2014 to have amounted to U.S.$102.8 billion; which was U.S.$620 million for iron ore, U.S.$24 billion for silver and platinum, and U.S.$78.2 billion for gold.

UNCTAD revised the report in December, though its fundamentals remained unchanged.

The Chamber of Mines also commissioned Eunomix to compile its own reports which were published in December and February respectively, focusing on UNCTAD’s gold scenarios.

The third report, which was published on Tuesday, deals with the other commodities.

The Chamber said in terms of gold, the UNCTAD study methodology compared reported exports by product and country of destination with the reported imports of the products by those same countries, and did not use other widely available data, including that of Statistics SA and the Reserve Bank.

The Chamber also dismissed all other UNCTAD findings in terms of silver and platinum, and iron ore.

The Chamber said all the factors that UNCTAD did not consider reinforced the point made in the earlier Eunomix reports regarding the lack of rigour and unreliable methodologies used in UNCTAD’s report.

“This is extremely unfortunate given the levels of credence that tend to be given to reports of this UN agency. Accusations of extensive misinvoicing and other illicit financial flows are feeding a growing lack of trust between key stakeholders in the mining industry,” the Chamber said.

“The Chamber of Mines again calls on UNCTAD to withdraw this report and acknowledge its shortcomings.” Source: The Citizen, Business News, 22 Aug, 2017. [Picture: Chamber of Mines]

AGOA – a Poisoned Chalice?

AGOA States-GAO

“Is the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) always a poisoned chalice from the United States of America?”, asks an editorial in The East African. The Kenya newspaper suggests it appeared to be so after the US allowed a petition that could see Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda lose their unlimited opening to its market.

This follows the US Trade Representative assenting last week to an appeal by Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, a used clothes lobby, for a review of the three countries’ duty-free, quota-free access to the country for their resolve to ban importation of used clothes, the The East African continues.

The US just happens to be the biggest source of used clothes sold in the world. Some of the clothes are recycled in countries like Canada and Thailand before being shipped to markets mostly in the developing world.

In East Africa, up to $125 million is spent on used clothes annually, a fifth of them imported directly from the US and the bulk from trans-shippers including Canada, India, the UAE, Pakistan, Honduras and Mexico.

The East Africa imports account for 22 percent of used clothes sold in Africa. Suspending the three countries from the 2000 trade affirmation would leave them short of $230 million in foreign exchange that they earn from exports to the US.

That would worsen the trade balance, which is already $80 million in favour of the US. In trade disputes, numbers do not tell the whole story. Agoa now appears to have been caught up in the nationalism sweeping across the developed world and Trumponomics.

US lobbies have been pushing for tough conditions to be imposed since it was enacted, including the third country rule of origin which would require that apparel exports be made from local fabric.

The rule, targeted at curbing China’s indirect benefits from Agoa through fabric sales, comes up for a legislative review in 2025, making it prudent for African countries to prepare for the worst. Whether that comes through a ban or phasing out of secondhand clothing (the wording that saved Kenya from being listed for a review) is immaterial.

What is imperative is that African countries have to be resolute in promoting domestic industries. In textiles and leather, for instance, that effort should include on-farm incentives for increasing cotton, hides and skins output, concessions for investments in value-adding plants like ginneries and tanneries and market outlets for local textile and shoe companies.

The world over, domestic markets provide the initial motivation for production before investors venture farther afield. Import bans come in handy when faced with such low costs of production in other countries that heavy taxation still leaves those products cheaper than those of competitors in the receiving countries.

The US has also been opposed to heavy taxation of used clothes, which buyers say are of better quality and more durable. For Kenya to be kept out of the review, it had to agree to reduce taxes on used apparel.

These factors have left Agoa beneficiaries in a no-win situation: Damned if you ban, damned if you do not. With their backs to the wall, beneficiaries like Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda have to think long term in choosing their industrial policies and calling the US bluff.

Beneficiaries must speak with one voice to effectively guard against trade conditions that over time hamper domestic industrial growth. Source: The East African, Picture: US GAO