The Trump administration’s approach to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) keeps getting murkier. And although I agree that keeping the other parties to a negotiation off balance from time to time, and holding cards close to one’s vest, can be excellent tactics, the latest apparent twist in American policy doesn’t appear to be explained by such considerations.
Let’s start with the excellent insight contained in a Reuters article today about one of the centerpieces of NAFTA reform identified by the administration – the rules of origin (ROO) for autos and other light-duty passenger vehicles. These treaty provisions have been rightly targeted by Team Trump negotiators from the standpoint of U.S. interests because motor vehicles and parts comprise such a large percentage of the goods exchanged throughout North America, and because since NAFTA went into effect, contrary to its supporters’ promises, the American automotive sector has become less, not more globally competitive.
The NAFTA ROO are ostensibly aimed at encouraging automotive manufacturing inside North America and currently require that 62.5 percent of a vehicle’s value come from within the free trade zone in order to be exempted from tariffs. The administration’s response is widely described as a toughening of these rules because it would raise this threshold to 75 percent.
But there’s always been one huge catch that I’ve been tweeting about consistently: Unless the tariff penalty imposed on vehicle and parts-makers outside North America is greatly increased, boosting the duty-free content threshold will have little impact on these companies’ production and employment decisions. The reason? The current NAFTA external tariff on these products is only 2.5 percent. (Just FYI, this point was first made during the original NAFTA debate, in this Economic Strategy Institute study to which I contributed modestly.) Continue reading