The Commerce Department issued its final rule amending the countervailing duty regulations to address potential currency undervaluation. This revision to Commerce’s regulations will take effect in 60 days and will apply to all new investigations and administrative reviews that begin on or after April 6, 2020. The new rules would effectively clear the way for the U.S. to start applying punitive tariffs on goods from countries accused of having undervalued currencies.
Under the revised regulations, Commerce in the conduct of its countervailing duty proceedings will now have the authority to take into consideration the real effective exchange rates to determine the extent to which a currency is undervalued. They will also be able to seek the Treasury Department’s formal, non-binding evaluation on whether the foreign government’s actions were responsible for the undervaluation. If Commerce determines that there is undervaluation of the currency and that the undervaluation resulted from government action, Commerce will then potentially consider currency exchanges by the exporters and/or traders to be a subsidy given that the exporter or trader would effectively receive more domestic currency in return for their exchanges of U.S. dollars than they otherwise would have been able to receive under the old rules.
In the conduct of its countervailing duty investigations and reviews, Commerce will now look at each individual exporter’s currency exchanges, and specifically, the amount of additional domestic currency received in exchanges due to undervaluation. It will then potentially add the currency subsidy amount to the exporter’s overall countervailing duty rate. The move would give new muscle to U.S. complaints about currency manipulation that have in the past targeted economies like China and Japan and thus turn the more than $6 trillion-a-day global currency market into a new battlefield in the Trump administration’s trade wars. The new rule was opposed by the Treasury Department when it was first proposed in May 2019 as it would allow U.S. companies to file trade complaints with the Commerce Department over specific imported products by treating undervalued currencies as a form of an unfair subsidy.
The new regulations have far-reaching effects as it would allow the U.S. to impose countervailing duties on goods from countries accused of manipulating their currencies, even in cases where they were not officially found to be a currency manipulator by the U.S. Department of Treasury. Previous administrations have examined this issue but have delayed or resisted efforts to take such actions as it could potentially lead to currency wars amongst trading partners.
Commerce’s announcement is the result of campaign promises from the 2016 election. “This Currency Rule is an important step in ensuring that unfair trade practices are properly remedied,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in a statement. “While successive administrations have balked at countervailing foreign currency subsidies, the Trump Administration is taking action to level the playing field for American businesses and workers.”
In a question and answer section attached to Monday’s announcement, the Commerce Department said it would preserve the final power to make any determination about whether a currency’s value presented an unfair subsidy for that country’s exporters. The statutes governing Treasury’s mandate to monitor currencies and Commerce’s power to impose anti-subsidy duties had different criteria, Commerce said.
“Hence, the two processes may result in different outcomes as to a particular country, theoretically including the possibility of applying countervailing duties to a country that does not meet the criteria for designation under the laws Treasury administers,” the statement said.
Commerce also said the new rule would allow it to specifically impose currency-related tariffs against China even if the Treasury did not label it a currency manipulator. The Treasury last month lifted a designation of China as a manipulator just days before Trump signed a “Phase One” trade deal with China that included language on currencies, though the new rule appears to give the U.S. powers to act that go beyond what was included in last month’s deal.
The Commerce Department put some purported caveats on its powers, saying it would “not normally include monetary and related credit policy of an independent central bank or monetary authority” in determining whether foreign governments had acted inappropriately to weaken currencies. “Commerce will seek and generally defer to Treasury’s expertise in currency matters,” it said. This statement, however, leaves a lot of room open for potential unilateral action by Commerce, as Commerce has reserved for itself the authority to find that undervaluation exists, even if Treasury in its bi-annual report makes a determination that a particular currency is artificially weak but not undervalued. This type of broad authority is similar to Commerce’s authority to conduct Particular Market Situation (“PMS”) investigations resulting in contested decisions and appeals to the Court of International Trade.