Evaluating the New NAFTA



Simon Lester and Inu Manak | CATO

Evaluating the New NAFTA

There’s a lot in the new NAFTA (technically, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA), some of it good and some of it bad (the new name is terrible, but that’s not particularly important). In this blog post, we offer our thoughts on some of the key provisions, after which we provide an initial overall assessment of the agreement. We break it down into the good, the interesting, the whatever, the worrying, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good:

– Canadian agriculture: In terms of liberalization in the USMCA, the most important component is the liberalization of Canadian agriculture imports, such as dairy products, eggs, wheat, poultry, and wine. Dairy market access was a key concern for the United States, which has long complained about Canada’s strict supply management and quota system. The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has noted the opening of Canada’s dairy market as a key achievement, because it gives the U.S. additional access to what was agreed in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). In addition, Canada agreed to give up a pricing system for certain types of milk, as well as expanding the U.S. quota for chicken, eggs, and turkey. On wine, the U.S. and Canada agreed in a side letter that the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) would adjust its measures restricting the sale on non-BC wine in its grocery stores. The United States has agreed to give BC until November 2019 to make this adjustment, before advancing a complaint it already put forward at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on this issue. This is the most positive part of the new agreement. It gives U.S. producers greater access to the Canadian market, and will be good for consumers in Canada.

– de minimis: The de minimis threshold for products that you buy online and can be imported duty free has been raised. The United States allows consumers to purchase goods up to $800 duty free, and has been pushing for Canada and Mexico to raise their limits as well. It did not persuade them to do so in the TPP. In the USMCA, however, Canada raised its de minimis threshold to CAD $150—a significant increase from the previous CAD $20 limit. In addition, sales tax cannot be collected until the value of the product reaches at least CAD $40. This is good for Canadian consumers making online purchases. Additionally, a 2016 study showed that increasing the duty free limit would be cost-saving for Canada. Mexico also increased its de minimis level, from USD $50 to USD $100, with tax free diminimis on USD $50. USTR has noted that this will be especially helpful for small businesses.

The Interesting:

– Investment protection/ISDS: These provisions have been significantly scaled back. We see this as a positive, and it will be interesting to see how it plays politically with left wing critics of existing investment provisions, and with the business groups who want these provisions included.

– Regulatory issues:  One notable addition was an expansive chapter on Good Regulatory Practices, which builds upon the TPP Regulatory Coherence chapter, the Canada-EU Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), and bilateral initiatives that have been in place between the U.S. and Canada, as well as with Mexico, since 2011. The key items in this chapter are provisions on increasing transparency in the regulatory process, providing a clear rationale for new regulatory actions, as well as encouraging cooperation on minimizing divergence in regulatory outcomes. The general idea is to make regulations less burdensome on trade. It will be interesting to see how this chapter functions in practice, but it appears to be the most comprehensive attempt to address this issue in any trade agreement the United States has signed.

– Digital trade: The digital trade provisions are very similar to what was in the TPP. In theory, these provisions can help facilitiate e-commerce, although in practice they are still untested and it’s not clear what impact they will have.

The Whatever: 

– Chapter 19: The special review mechanism for anti-dumping/countervailing duties in the famous Chapter 19 has been shifted to Chapter 10, but remains essentially the same. This provision does not have much, if any, commercial impact, but Canada insisted on keeping it nonetheless, and was able to push back on U.S. demands to eliminate it.

The Worrying:

– Currency: This is the first trade agreement with binding provisions related to exchange rates, although not all of this chapter’s provisions are enforceable. There are few concerns with Canada’s and Mexico’s practices in this area, so this provision is really just a marker to lay down for future agreements. The test of this provision will be if another country for which such concerns have been raised (e.g., Japan) agrees to it. While there may be real issues with currency intervention here and there, the problems here have been exaggerated, and have been used by politicians as an excuse to impose tariffs.

– State-state dispute settlement: In order to ensure that the obligations that have been agreed to in a trade agreement are followed, there needs to be an enforcement mechanism. Chapters 11, 19, and 20 of the original NAFTA are often bundled together as “dispute settlement” chapters, but they all do different things. Chapter 20 is the basic provision that allows one government to complain that another government is not complying with its obligations. The original NAFTA Chapter 20 did not work very well, and unfortunately the new NAFTA looks like it fails to fix its flaws.

– Labor rights: The labor rights provisions go further than past U.S. trade agreements. For some people on the left, this could offer a reason to support the agreement. If you are skeptical about including labor provisions in trade agreements, as we are, this is a negative aspect to the agreement.

– IP provisions:The intellectual property chapter strengthens IP protections, going beyond what was agreed to in the TPP. For example, the parties agreed to 10 years of data exclusivity for biologic drugs (from 5-8), copyright protection to a minimum of the life of the author plus 70 years, and 75 years for copyrights not based on the life of a person.

– Section 232 auto tariffs: As part of the NAFTA renegotiations, Canada and Mexico had hoped to secure an exemption from the potential imposition of additional Section 232 tariffs on autos. However, instead of an outright exemption, there are two separate side letters to the USMCA for Canada and Mexico that exempt a set quota of passenger vehicle imports and auto parts, as well as all light truck imports, from 232 tariffs that may be imposed in the future. The United States also agreed not to impose 232 tariffs on Canada or Mexico for at least 60 days after the measure is imposed, allowing the U.S. to negotiate separate agreements within that timeframe. The exemption levels are high enough that all auto exports from Canada and Mexico could be exempt, which is good news. However, the principle is an awful one – applying these tariffs and then establishing export quotas is bad policy and undermines the rule of law.

The Bad:

– FTAs with China: The agreement discourages the NAFTA parties from negotiating trade deals with non-market economies, which means China and a few others. Limitations on negotiating other FTAs are a bad idea generally; it remains to be seen what actual impact it will have here (Canada and China have been talking about negotiating an FTA).

The Ugly:

– North American auto trade: The new rules of origin are extremely restrictive, raising costs for auto production in North America. This could lead to more production being done outside of North America, or higher costs for consumers. This is the most negative part of the new agreement.

– Sunset clause: The sunset clause is weakened from the original U.S. proposal – under which the agreement would expire automatically after five years unless all three countries agree to extend it – but it is still problematic. The revised provision may end up being harmless, but there are risks, and it would be better to take it out.


Overall, the package agreed to here looks like a mixed bag. There are some good things, some bad things, and many unknowns. The biggest loss might be unseen, however. If only the Trump administration had just implemented the TPP, or had begun negotiating with countries with whom the U.S. did not already have a trade agreement, it could have achieved a great deal more trade liberalization. On the other hand, people may feel that the biggest gain was preserving most of the zero tariffs under the NAFTA. But somehow, just keeping what you already had does not seem like that big of a win to us.

To view the original posting of this article by Cato Institute, click here.

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