31 March 2020
Julia Magntorn Garrett is a Research Officer in Economics at the University of Sussex and Fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.
On Wednesday 18 March, the UKTPO published a Briefing Paper in response to the UK Government’s consultation on the UK’s future applied Most Favoured Nation tariff.
In lieu of a public launch event, which had to be cancelled due to coronavirus, this blog outlines some excellent feedback we have already received and aims to open up the issue for further discussion.
To recap, the Government has outlined three broad proposals in the tariff consultation:
In the Briefing Paper, we provided some analysis of the implications of these changes, and listed eight recommendations we believe the Government should consider when developing the UK’s tariff schedule. A summary of these recommendations is at the end of this blog.
One issue discussed in the Briefing Paper concerned the potentially detrimental impact that the tariff proposals could have on developing countries, particularly the removal of tariffs on products with no UK production. Currently, many of these goods are imported from developing countries on preferential terms. Removing tariffs on such goods, as well as the proposals with regard to tariff simplification and intermediate goods, would erode those preferences, which could be damaging for these countries. We recommended that before tariffs are eliminated on such goods, the Government should evaluate the potential impact that this might have on developing countries.
Sheila Page from the Overseas Development Institute rightly pointed out that the way to deal with the effects of potential preference erosion on developing countries is not necessarily to preserve the tariffs, but to offer assistance to help the affected countries adjust to the changing circumstances. Sheila further stated that: “It is better to say that tariffs are an instrument of policy; they are not a policy, and other instruments (notably ODA [Official Development Assistance]) are more suitable for implementing development policy.”
Seeing tariffs as an instrument of (trade) policy as opposed to a policy in themselves, is exactly the right approach. Presented in this way it becomes much clearer that policymakers need first to be clear about the policy itself, and then ask the question as to what changes in the instrument, if any, are appropriate. In turn, while other instruments are certainly more suitable for development policy, this is also not an argument for suggesting that the proposals would have a negligible impact on developing countries. It is an argument for having a coherent policy.
Many agricultural goods face specific duties, which levy a fixed charge per unit of a good. The Government is considering moving away from such tariffs to so-called ad-valorem tariffs, which are expressed as a percentage of the value of a good. The consultation document states that “Moving towards simplification of these more complex tariffs would make it easier for importers of agricultural goods to know what tariff they are being charged.”
In the Briefing Paper we discuss the difficulty of determining ad-valorem equivalents (i.e. percentage rates) for specific duties, since these will depend on the unit price of a good, which, of course, varies over time. It will therefore be a considerable challenge for the Government to determine the appropriate percentage duties to set if the aim is to maintain a rate of protection equivalent to that which these industries currently enjoy.
David Roberts, former Deputy Director General of DG Agriculture at the European Commission, echoed our concerns over the difficulties of estimating ad-valorem equivalents (AVEs). He agreed that there is no way of identifying an AVE based on current data that will produce a percentage tariff in the future which will be equivalent to the protection given by a specific tariff. In addition, however, he made the important point that a specific tariff could be seen to be the most appropriate way of giving producers a fixed level of protection, since such tariffs do not fluctuate when world prices fluctuate, and converting such tariffs to percentage terms may therefore not constitute a simplification for importers.
David said “[T]he “simplification” is for researchers and negotiators. For importers and customs authorities fixed tariffs are very much simpler because they do not have to reach agreement on the import price of a consignment in order to establish the amount of tariff to be paid.”
Once again this echoes the principle that tariffs are instruments and not policies in their own right. If the aim of policy is to provide given sectors with certainty around fixed levels of protection (e.g. agricultural sectors, which see considerable price fluctuations) then specific tariffs may well be more appropriate.
Any changes to applied tariffs can have complex consequences and often involves difficult trade-offs. Whether or not these are desirable requires consideration of the broader policy contexts – precisely to understand these trade-offs better. This was a key message in our Briefing Paper, and the comments we have received reinforce that view. It is important for the Government to analyse the impact of such changes on different groups, how the changes integrate into policy objectives, and also to evaluate what the most appropriate policy instruments are to help those affected to adjust.
The comments that we have received have provided important insights into some of the complexities of this issue. We encourage those interested to use the comment section to give any further comments, so that we can have a useful, albeit virtual, exchange of ideas and an online discussion.
Recommendation 1: In the near future, maintain as much as possible the existing structure of applied tariffs.
Recommendation 2: Reducing firms’ imported input costs in order to increase their competitiveness is potentially a sensible strategy, but is not without its downsides.
Recommendation 3: Decisions regarding the structure of applied tariffs should be made bearing in mind the possible regional consequences of any changes.
Recommendation 4: The analysis of the impact of tariff changes on prices and households should be undertaken at a detailed level.
Recommendation 5: Before eliminating tariffs on goods not produced within the UK, the impact on developing countries should be evaluated.
Recommendation 6: We strongly support the idea of encouraging trade in environmental goods, but suggest that any such policy should not be based on the existing lists. Instead the government should produce a list based on scientific evidence.
Recommendation 7: The Government should develop a broader approach to environment-friendly or climate-friendly trade policy. It should consider both tariffs and non-tariff barriers to imports and exports, and should be closely integrated with the Government’s domestic environmental policies.
Recommendation 8: The Government should consult widely, not just on tariffs, but also on non-tariff measures and trade-related regulations, and the coherence of these policies with domestic policy objectives.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or UK Trade Policy Observatory.
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