Emboldened by President Trump’s promise of tougher enforcement of U.S. trade laws, a fresh wave of new antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) petitions were filed in March by domestic U.S. industries seeking relief from imports. The petitions cover five products (silicon metal, aluminum foil, biodiesel fuel, wire rod, and carton closing staples) from all over the world from Argentina and Australia, to the UAE and UK. And of course, China. These petitions will trigger 25 separate AD/CVD investigations at the Department of Commerce.
However, one of President Trump’s first executive orders was to freeze hiring of any new or replacement federal government employees. If this hiring freeze continues, the Department of Commerce (DOC) may not have enough manpower to administer all these new AD/CVD cases. The DOC already has about the same number of on-going investigations that must be completed, along with an even bigger number of administrative reviews of all the existing AD/CVD orders that are still in effect. For each case, a DOC case analyst and attorney must draft and issue multiple rounds of questionnaires, review the responses and comments submitted, analyze all the issues raised, calculate AD/CVD margins, and draft decision memoranda. All these necessary tasks require a certain minimum amount of time to be completed. Without reinforcements, the expanding new case load threatens to stretch the DOC trade remedy team well past a reasonable or manageable work load.
Nine U.S. Senators have already asked President Trump to lift the hiring freeze for trade enforcement personnel at a variety of agencies such as DOC, Customs and Border Protection, USTR, and Department of Justice. They specifically noted that these agencies have been tasked with more extensive trade enforcement responsibilities, but the hiring freeze would have the effect of reducing the resources available for such enforcement.
Since the hiring freeze does not apply to military personnel or those deemed essential to security, maybe President Trump will find trade enforcement is essential to national security or carve out some other exception to allow new hires for the DOC and other trade related agencies. But if the DOC cannot hire enough personnel to administer cases properly, then perhaps it will develop leaner and meaner ways to handle these new AD/CVD cases. That is the fear of the international trade lawyers at my law firm and elsewhere, and it should be the fear of any company, Chinese or otherwise, that finds itself caught in the crosshairs of an AD/CVD petition.
For example, DOC may now try to decide more cases based on applying total adverse facts available (AFA), after finding the respondent exporter or producer to be non-cooperative because their questionnaire responses are deemed untimely or inadequate. Making this sort of finding will allow the DOC to avoid crunching all the submitted sales and cost data to get AD/CVD margins that often are not that high (particularly for non-Chinese market economy cases). This will give the DOC the highest AD/CVD margins possible with the least amount of work if the exporter/ producer gives up or is given a death blow.
Even if a respondent survives the questionnaire process and avoids a total AFA determination, the DOC now can generate higher AD/CVD margins by applying a new trade law provision which allows it to find a “particular market situation” justifying an upward margin calculation adjustment. This is what Peter Navarro, head of the newly formed National Trade Counsel, recently urged Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to do in an on-going administrative review of Korean OCTG oil drilling pipe. In that case, Navarro and the domestic pipe producers wanted the DOC to make a “particular market situation” finding the Korean pipe producers benefited from subsidies embedded in their purchases of Chinese steel. Navarro relied on a “logical” presumption that the Chinese steel subsidies of 60% found in a prior unrelated case would be passed through to benefit the Korean pipe producers to generate a margin of at least 36%. Navarro’s back of the napkin calculation lacked even a napkin to support the calculation. Respondents in that case complained that Navarro’s email was an unprecedented intervention and an overt suggestion that DOC calculate a politically acceptable but factually unsupportable AD/CVD margin.
U.S. AD/CVD cases have long had a reputation for being more objective and fact/data intensive than those conducted by most other countries. But if political pressure and personnel limitations push DOC to make more arbitrary AFA determinations or politically motivated findings of a “particular market situation” U.S. trade remedy cases will soon lose any advantage of perceived objectivity or credibility. The Department of Commerce already has significant discretion to weigh the record evidence and make judgment calls favoring the domestic industry. But at least those judgment calls have been based on an analysis of specific record evidence. The new “particular market situation” provision appears to give DOC even more discretion to make adjustments based only the thinnest of factual basis. This shift towards a more politically-driven AD/CVD process may result in the Department of Commerce issuing higher margins in the short term, but over the long term, the AD/CVD process risks losing significant credibility. Trade remedy cases, by definition, are intended to be remedial, not punitive. DOC’s AD/CVD process is supposed to determine the “fair” normal value for subject imports. If DOC’s definition of a “fair” export price is not factually or legally based, but is instead arbitrarily determined by politically influenced adjustments, an exporter or US importer has no way to determine whether or how their pricing should be adjusted in order to be deemed “fair” by DOC.
What this means in real life for Chinese companies sending products to the United States, and to those who import products made in China, is that they need to be even more careful not to run afoul of U.S. AD/CVD laws and pricing. And when tagged for any AD/CVD violation, it is more critical than ever that they respond quickly and with as many facts as they can muster, thus making it harder for the DOC to make quick and random and financially deadly decisions.