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Trade compliance manager—the unsung hero of 2018

Compliance managers facilitate shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Trade compliance manager—the unsung hero of 2018

In every organization—business, political, social, household—there is what’s often described as an unsung hero; an individual who plays a pivotal role but is often overlooked or uncelebrated. Within global organizations engaged in international trade, perhaps one of the most under-celebrated and under-appreciated is the compliance manager.

For the uninitiated, a trade compliance manager is someone who deals with the legal, regulatory, and administrative aspects of importing/exporting goods into a specific country or trade zone. The compliance manager’s goals are: to certify goods are being brought into a country in a manner that is compliant with the laws and regulations of the land; to ensure goods are being imported in the most cost-effective manner, leveraging preferential duties under trade agreements; to identify and mitigate risks associated with non-compliance to prevent unnecessary (and significant) penalties; and, to prepare for customs/government audits. In short, they are responsible not only for saving and protecting millions of dollars in international-related transactions, but also for protecting the reputations and good standing of the corporations they represent.

If that sounds straightforward, it’s anything but. It involves dealing with hundreds of potential classification codes across multiple geographies, each with their own regulatory and customs processing systems, the role is characterized by high stress, long hours, frequent and sudden adaptation to changes in the processes of external agencies, and a requirement to update one’s knowledge constantly.

In my role, I have the opportunity to meet regularly with compliance specialists. Many of them impart to me their daily stresses, emerging pressures and the changing nature of their role. That role has evolved rapidly in recent years from one that was primarily administrative in nature to one that is strategic and forward-thinking. But that evolution has resulted in added responsibilities and expectations without relief from the demands of day-to-day compliance matters.

It’s difficult to remember a time when there has been more pressure on compliance specialists. The past two years have witnessed significant changes to how goods move around the world. New trade agreements have emerged. Existing trade agreements have been revised. New tariffs, anti-dumping duties, countervailing duties and surtaxes have become commonplace, and with them greater scrutiny on how goods are classified. New processes in the transmission of customs data and the reformation of customs processes have become constant in a world attempting to digitize customs administration. Attempting to adjust compliance data and processes in response to all of these changes while providing strategic counsel to their organizations’ supply chain leaders has been onerous to say the least.

Perhaps their greatest frustration is that all the recent change and volatility surrounding trade has made them welcomingly more visible and valued to superiors and corporate leaders for the strategic role they play. But they are so overwhelmed by the constant barrage of change in customs administration they have scant time to gather the insights and perform the data analysis required to effectively showcase their strategic value.

To be sure, automation software exists to streamline the compliance process, offering some relief from day-to-day compliance management. But the software is only as good as the data it manages; and mining that data for inaccuracies and inconsistencies is a daunting task, particularly when multiple products, geographies and compliance processes are involved. To achieve true peace of mind, compliance specialists typically choose to partner with external consultants to mine the data and then apply them within a global trade management software application.

Doing so is often a difficult choice as many feel they’re relinquishing control over a process they have traditionally managed and that remains integral to their role. And yet, I’ve witnessed a noteworthy shift in the number of instances in which customs specialists do just that in hopes of capitalizing on the opportunity to dig into strategic planning in earnest.

With so many changes happening all at once, they need the time required to understand, analyze and reflect on supplier sources and markets, production materials, product design (and in turn product classification), risk exposure, changes to landed costs, impact on supply-chain partners and the hard and soft costs associated with all of these. Still, many others continue to take on the tasks associated with that strategic planning while still managing day-to-day compliance, which is a tall order, to say the least.

Whichever method they choose, it’s indisputable their role is becoming increasingly invaluable in optimizing the performance of their organizations’ supply chains. And as long as disruption remains the new normal in global trade, you can be sure they’ll be burning the midnight oil.

So the next time you see your compliance manager with his or her head hidden behind a stack of documents or multiple computer screens as you make your way out the door, give them a high-five for going the extra mile.

Bernie Hart is a vice-president in the Global Trade Management division of Livingston International. He has more than 30 years of experience is a veritable expert in the import, export, technology and compliance aspects of international trade.

New NAFTA would govern North American shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

NAFTA: Multinationals Should Choose Just-in-Case Over Wait-and-See

The threat of a US NAFTA withdrawal has significantly dissipated in recent weeks, giving way to optimism and a sense of relief among those corporations that spent more than a generation making investments into expansive continental supply chains.

While widespread relief from America’s biggest industries and corporations would have been unsurprising, the response thus far has been somewhat muted. Perhaps that’s because many of them predicted and quietly expected the negotiations would ultimately leave the trade landscape relatively unaltered.

Recent research by Livingston shows two-thirds of large businesses across the US and Canada believed the negotiations would either be successful or would linger for an extended period until policymakers ultimately agreed to leave the agreement unchanged.

To their credit, a healthy contingent of large businesses that currently make use of NAFTA chose not to take a wait-and-see approach and began developing contingencies in the event of a worst-case scenario (i.e. a US withdrawal from NAFTA).

But the percentage of big business planning for the worst isn’t as great as one might think. Only 18 percent said they have developed contingency plans, while just more than half said that while they were concerned about a potential negative outcome, they had only a general sense of how a U.S withdrawal might affect their business and weren’t yet making contingencies. An additional 18 per cent said they hadn’t considered the outcome of the negotiations or the impact to their business at all.

That wait-and-see approach was rooted in their optimism that one way or another NAFTA would ultimately remain a mainstay of North American trade. Unfortunately, we’re not quite out of the woods just yet. While there’s significant cause for optimism and the parties continue to strive for an agreement in early May, they continue to remain far apart on a number of critical issues and anything could happen still.

For those companies yet to consider how changes to NAFTA might affect them, here are a few considerations:

Landed costs. Should the US choose to withdraw from NAFTA, the most immediate effect would be the imposition of tariffs on the countless goods that cross North America’s borders daily. Companies should be consulting with their customs brokers to determine what the tariff impact might be to their respective product classifications.

Transport times. One of the hallmarks of NAFTA is the degree to which it goes beyond strictly trade matters and incorporates cooperation in regulatory regimes and security policies. After the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2011, enhanced security measures were put in place and all three parties to NAFTA collaborated to find ways of streamlining trade processes without compromising security.

It’s difficult to say what impact a US withdrawal from NAFTA might have on those cooperative border processes. For example, under NAFTA, Mexican long-haul truckers are currently allowed to enter the United States and carry their loads up to 20 kilometers within the US before switching over to a US carrier. Should this process be discontinued, it would dramatically increase wait times at US-Mexico border crossings where truckers already have wait times of five to six hours before receiving clearance to proceed. It would also make the transfer process between Mexican and US carriers more cumbersome, further lengthening ground transport times.

Companies should be considering what delays in ground transport could mean for them, including the potential for additional warehousing costs, the impact to their inventory control and the potential for customer service issues. Companies with just-in-time freight processes and with robust e-commerce offerings could be particularly vulnerable.

Trade lanes. It’s important to remember that if the US withdraws from NAFTA, that doesn’t mean that free trade won’t continue between Canada and Mexico, which will soon have their free-trade relationship further solidified via their mutual participation in the Comprehensive & Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership from which the US withdrew last year.

Companies that rely on trade between Canada and Mexico – where trade values amounted to almost $500 billion in 2016 – can still find ways to leverage the cost savings of free trade. For example, by bonding ground transport through the US, they could avoid duty by not entering the goods into the commerce of the United States.  Shipping goods by sea and avoiding the US altogether may be another possibility depending on the circumstances.

Corporations trading goods in high value and/or volume directly between Canada and Mexico should work with their trade consultants to determine what alterations to their current trade lanes might make most sense based on their transport costs and total landed costs.

FTA alternatives. For businesses in North America, NAFTA is the best game in town in terms of free trade agreements. But it’s not the only game in town. Mexico currently holds free trade agreements with more than 40 countries and Canada continues to reduce its trade barriers, including the aforementioned CPTPP and the recently ratified Comprehensive Economic & Trade Agreement (CETA), a free trade deal with the EU.

For US or Mexican companies with distribution centers in Canada, for example, it would make sense to investigate establishing manufacturing centers or supplier relationships in Asia where goods could be exported to Canada tariff free. Similarly, companies that import product into the US from abroad for assembly and eventual re-export to countries that maintain free-trade relationships with Canada or Mexico, might consider relocating their assembly operations to America’s northern or southern neighbor.

There’s no question a US withdrawal from NAFTA would have a dramatic impact on the supply chains of US multinationals, but there are ways of mitigating the impact with careful and thoughtful scenario planning. Yet it seems many business decision makers are waiting until a tangible announcement of NAFTA withdrawal takes place. Such an announcement would serve as the obligatory six-month notification requirement – a time period that is completely insufficient to reconfigure an international supply chain.

Things may be looking up on the negotiation front, but planning for the worst couldn’t hurt, especially when one considers the stakes involved.

Bernie Hart is a vice president in the Global Trade Management division of trade services firm Livingston International.

It's not clear when the UK will implement new system to process shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Brexit Leaves UK Customs Transition in Limbo

Companies involved in importing and/or exporting goods through the United Kingdom will want to keep a close eye on the country’s customs clearance processes, which may be entering a period of temporary limbo. The country is currently undergoing a major transformation of its import and export tracking system, CHIEF (Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight), that is likely to have a profound effect on anyone moving goods through the country.

Those who have dealt with CHIEF likely know that what was once a cutting edge solution for goods management and customs processing has now run its course, even as it continues to communicate with almost 30 other systems. In response, the UK’s Customs and Revenue department has been working toward the development of a new processing system, dubbed the Customs Declaration Services (CDS) program, to track imports, exports and their respective values—a move precipitated by a need to incorporate specific requirements for EU goods.

Initially, CDS was slated for launch in the Fall of 2017 to ensure it met its requirements for the EU. However, the recent Brexit vote, which demanded that the government begin the process of exiting the EU, is likely to alter those timelines as CDS no longer needs to accommodate EU requirements in full.

That may come as relief to some of the CDS developers who have pointed out the original timeline was ambitious and left little room to effectively test the system and work out any necessary kinks. But it’s important to remember that even after CDS is in place, the key import/export participants in the country, including customs brokers, freight forwarders, carriers and other stakeholders will then need to implement their own systems to align with CDS. Given the importance of the changeover, a strong sense of timing will be critical to success, but the Brexit vote and the political turmoil it has initiated has left many questions about what will come of CDS and when.

In order for the UK to exit the EU, it must first invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, an action that does not yet have a clear timeline. In the interim, there are a host of voices calling for a re-do on the referendum given its close outcome, while others have brought forward alternative interpretations of Article 50 that would suggest its invocation must come only after a parliamentary vote in favor of doing so. Once Article 50 is invoked, it will put the UK on a two-year deadline to negotiate and complete its exit from the EU.

Assuming CDS can be implemented and tested in advance of the UK’s exit from the EU, there will likely be little incentive for CDS to meet the EU’s requirements as originally intended. However, the ambiguity around the invocation of Article 50 and the overall Brexit timeline may mean EU requirements are incorporated into CDS and then gradually altered or withdrawn as necessary post-exit.

The trouble is, no one really knows precisely what will happen and when, leaving all those invested in the initiative feeling a little uncertain about what the future holds for the seamless processing of goods across the UK’s borders.

What is certain is just how critical a smooth transition between CHIEF and CDS is to the country’s government coffers and the industries who rely on these systems. As it stands, CHIEF accounts for the collection of some $44 billion in government revenue each year and is a critical bulwark against the importation of dangerous, prohibited and restricted goods. It’s also the primary means of data collection related to the UK’s international trade.

All this to say there’s great reason to pay close attention to the UK’s primary goods-processing system, not only for enterprises in the UK but for the world’s shippers as a whole. Once CDS is implemented, import/export stakeholders will need to act fast to ensure they’re aligned.

Bernie Hart is the vice-president of sales for Livingston International’s Global Trade Management group and Strategic Accounts.

Upcoming developments in 2016 will means more shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Preparing for 2016 Trade Developments

As the trade landscape continues to evolve, companies that are already global as well as those looking to expand their global market in 2016 will encounter important changes. Several trade developments, including the Information Technology Agreement (ITA), Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) and IMMEX (Maquiladora) Program will likely change the way importers, exporters, and customs brokers conduct business in 2016.

Here is a high-level breakdown of what each of these developments and initiatives mean and how to best prepare for them.

Information Technology Agreement (ITA). Finalized in December 2015, the ITA is the first tariff-cutting agreement in the World Trade Organization in 18 years. It will eliminate tariffs on roughly 200 IT products, valued at approximately $1.3 trillion in annual trade. More than 80 countries, including the U.S., Canada, and China, representing 97 percent of world trade in information technology products, have agreed to participate in the ITA. The agreement will offer trade opportunities that weren’t originally available and increase competition for U.S. tech manufacturers by opening the U.S. market to similar products from other countries.

Automated Commercial Environment (ACE). Beginning February 2016, filers are required to transmit cargo release and entry summaries for U.S. imports, as well as data sets required by the Food and Drug Administration, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, following ACE processes and technical requirements. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection updates aim to streamline and leverage more current technologies and process changes, improving the exchange of information between the trade, CBP, and 47 different federal agencies through a single government window. Every U.S. company that imports and exports is required to update its systems and protocols to comply with ACE by February 28, 2016. As of that date ACE will be the only way to submit electronic cargo release information.

IMMEX (Maquiladora) Program. This trade agreement allows companies to import raw goods and services to Mexico to be manufactured and re-exported without paying customs duties, along with other benefits. Although more than 6,000 companies are approved by Mexican authorities and participating in IMMEX, many of them may have their VAT exemption at risk if they don’t have the necessary controls to cover the requirements to obtain the proper VAT certification. Due to changes in regulations since 2014, the Mexican government eliminated the automatic 16 percent value-added tax (VAT) exemption for temporary imports of goods unless companies obtain a specific VAT certification. Companies taking part in the IMMEX Program should make sure they have obtained a certification.

How can you prepare?

Once you understand how these changes could affect your company, take the following steps.

Know your capabilities. Conduct a comparative analysis of your business to evaluate its potential for trade in emerging markets.

Make a compliance strategy. Implement a trade compliance program based on the rules of each applicable regulation or trade agreement. As part of this process, you can determine how to best work with foreign suppliers and choose the right supply chain to align with your business strategy.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re short on time and resources, partner with a customs broker or compliance expert to simplify the process and provide assistance with data analytics, classification, rules of origin and other services.

Bernie Hart is vice president for global trade management sales at Livingston International.