Data is King!

Two recent articles reaching my desk reiterate the importance of clean and standardised Customs data. Without this, any real benefits to be derived from the latest and future technologies will not be fully achieved. Downstream, a country’s economy depends on this data for accurate analysis, forecasting and policy-making. Similarly, the business community relies on accurate information to assist in better business and investment decisions.

During the 15th PICARD Conference held during 23-26 November 2020, ‘World Customs Journal Special Edition’ was introduced. The first paper of the special edition is based on the keynote speech which was given at the 14th PICARD Conference in October 2019 titled “Data Science: Policy Implications for Customs”.

The paper referred to is titled –

“If algorithms dream of Customs, do customs of cialsdreamofalgorithms?A manifesto for data mobilisation in Customs

The Abstract of the document reads as follows –

“Governance by data is a growing global trend, supported by strong national public policies whose foundation is open data, artificial intelligence and decision-making supported by algorithms. Despite this trend and some technical advances, Customs face obstacles in deploying ambitious data use policies. This article describes these challenges through recent experience in some Customs administrations and considers the technical and ethical issues speci c to all law enforcement agencies in the context of customs missions, to open paths for research and propose policy recommendations for a better use of customs data.”

The second matter is perhaps more directed towards Africa. TRALAC Newsletter, of October 2002 titled “Trade and Related Matters discusses the importance of data, specifically now with the introduction of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in January 2021.

The article considers more than just Customs trade data relating to goods. It envisages trade in services data as just as important to ensure a holistic approach –

“Trade-related data includes not only recorded values and volumes of goods trade among countries, but also data on services trade, non-tariff measures and barriers, tariffs, informal trade, trade restrictiveness, macro-economic conditions (like gross domestic product), micro-economic data (industry/firm-level data including employment, sales, profits and prices) and investment. This data is utilised by governments to make public policy decisions including the formulation of industrial, agriculture, trade and economic growth policies, strategies and regulations; trade negotiations strategies; merger and acquisition reviews; assessments of anti-competitive practices and determinations in trade remedy cases and applications for changes in tariffs. Businesses use trade information, such as tariffs in destination markets, applicable non-tariff measures, transportation costs and trade restrictiveness in combination with macro-economic indicators, firm-level data and market information to make investment, trade and market development decisions, and also to lodge trade remedy and tariff review applications and to inform their participation in public-private forums.”

The Newsletter continues to explain the notable improvements in data and reporting oer the last decade –

“Although trade and trade-related data has various uses, it needs to be useful, reliable and accurate information which is publicly available (except in the case of confidential information). This is the area where most African countries have historically fallen short although there has been some significant progress over the last decade. Initially, African trade data was only available on subscription databases and only for a select number of countries (like South Africa, Kenya and Egypt) and limited to trade in goods. There was a lack in published tariff schedules and data pertaining to non-tariff measures, investment, informal trade and services. In recent years, the availability of some data has improved significantly, especially for goods trade.

  • African countries are now increasingly publishing their statistics on websites of national statistics authorities and notifying their national data to the United Nations (UN). This data includes data on formal goods trade, aggregate services trade, non-tariff measures, tariffs, investment and some market information. The quality of the data has also improved as most countries now extensively verify the data prior to publication and submission. Increased access enables organisations like the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and International Trade Centre (ITC) to obtain, collate and publish trade data in databases like the ITC TradeMap and MacMap and the WTO trade portal.
  • As part of the implementation of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, many countries are establishing trade portals. Southern and eastern African countries that already have functioning portals include Seychelles, Eswatini, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Some portals contain detailed information on import and export requirements by specified product, sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, port of entry and applicable tariffs. The trade portals of countries in east Africa, including Uganda and Rwanda provide details of import or export processes including the trade costs such as inspection charges, and indicate the waiting time to complete the different steps.
  • Once fully operational, the African Trade Observatory (ATO) will contribute significantly to the availability of African trade data and capacity building. The ATO will collect and analyse trade and trade-related qualitative and quantitative data and information, establish a database for African trade; monitor implementation and evaluate the implementation process and impact of the AfCFTA and the Action Plan for Boosting Intra-Africa Trade (BIAT); and equip national governments and businesses to analyse and use of trade and related data.
  • There is increasing awareness of the effect of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) on intra-Africa trade. More information is available in the public domain through industry/product/sector studies, the trade cost database of the World Bank and the online non-tariff barrier mechanisms of the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area, the Borderless Alliance (west Africa) and the new AfCFTA mechanism.
  • Informal trade is recognised as a major component of intra-Africa trade and this is not captured in formal trade statistics. There are a number of initiatives to gather data on informal cross-border trade (ICBT), including studies by UNECAand ongoing work by the Bank of Uganda which has been conducting surveys and reporting ICBT data since 2005.

Although there have been improvements in intra-Africa trade data, there is room for improvement.”

German Customs dispute disrupts plywood imports from China

Laminated woodThe importance of tariff classification and its impact on statistical and economic data – German imports of hardwood plywood from China continue to be affected by a dispute between the German trade and customs officials. In the last three years, customs officials, particularly at the port of Bremerhaven, have been checking Chinese plywood to ensure that boards are cross-laminated rather than laid parallel to each other.

According to German customs, boards should be reclassified as Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) if not fully cross-laminated. This is frequently the case with lower-quality Chinese plywood manufactured using small veneer pieces for the cores. LVL incurs a higher rate of duty of 10% compared to 7% for plywood. Roughly 40% of Chinese hardwood plywood deliveries into Germany were reclassified in this way in 2012.

German import merchants and the timber trade federation GD Holz have held talks with German customs to try to more clearly define which products should be considered plywood and which LVL. According to GD Holz, these talks have been unproductive so far and customs continue to reclassify Chinese plywood. Several German importers have now filed lawsuits and results are still pending. At the same time, GD Holz report that since 2014, several importers have been reimbursed for some instances of excessive duty paid. However, customs has not revealed why reimbursements were offered in some cases but not in others.

The uncertainty created by the dispute in Germany may partly explain the recent rise in imports of Chinese hardwood plywood into ports in Belgium and Netherlands. German buyers may be avoiding excess duty by buying from stocks landed in these neighbouring European countries.

The reclassification process has led to inconsistencies in the statistical data on German hardwood plywood imports. Data derived from Eurostat indicates that German imports fell by 18.3% to 34,700 cu.m in the first five months of 2015. This followed a decline of 5.5% to 103,000 cu.m for the whole year 2014.

However, the Eurostat data deviates from figures published by the German Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) which indicate a 62% increase in German hardwood plywood imports from China in the first quarter of 2015. On enquiry, Destatis note that they have adjusted their data downwards for 2014 to take account of plywood reclassified as LVL.

However Destatis have not yet made the same adjustment to the 2015 data. As a result, Destatis data on deliveries to Germany appear to surge this year. Overall, once all adjustments are made, Destatis reckon German imports of Chinese hardwood plywood in the first five months of 2015 were probably around the same as last year.