Today (April 16, 2021), the U.S. Department of the Treasury released its semi-annual report on trading partner currency practices. See U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of International Affairs, Report to Congress, Macroeconomic and
Foreign Exchange Policies of Major Trading Partners of the United States, April 2021, https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/206/April_2021_FX_Report_FINAL.pdf.
The press release from Treasury found three countries/territories to have problematic currency practices — Switzerland, Vietnam and Taiwan — but didn’t find any them to be currency manipulators. This constituted a change of position on Switzerland and Vietnam which had been found to be currency manipulators in the December 2020 report. All three countries are subject to increased scrutiny and interface with Treasury. A number of other countries remain on the monitoring list for currency practices with Mexico and Ireland being added to that list in this report. China was separately identified for transparency concerns. See U.S. Department of the Treasury Press Release, Treasury Releases Report on Macroeconomic and Foreign Exchange Policies of Major Trading Partners of the United States, April 16, 2021, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0131. The press release is copied below and the April 2021 Report is embedded after that.
“WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of the Treasury today delivered to Congress the semiannual Report on Macroeconomic and Foreign Exchange Policies of Major Trading Partners of the United States. In this Report, Treasury reviewed and assessed the policies of 20 major U.S. trading partners during the four quarters through December 2020.
“The Report concluded that both Vietnam and Switzerland continue to meet all three criteria under the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 (the 2015 Act) during the period under review. Additionally, the report finds that Taiwan met all three of the 2015 Act criteria for the period under review. Treasury has conducted enhanced analysis of Vietnam, Switzerland, and Taiwan’s macroeconomic and foreign exchange policies, as reflected in the Report. Treasury will continue its enhanced engagement with Vietnam and Switzerland, and Treasury will commence enhanced engagement with Taiwan. This engagement includes urging the development of a plan with specific actions to address the underlying causes of currency undervaluation and external imbalances.
“Under the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 (the 1988 Act), Treasury has determined that there is insufficient evidence to make a finding that Vietnam, Switzerland, or Taiwan manipulates its exchange rate for either of the purposes referenced in the 1988 Act. Nevertheless, consistent with the 1988 Act, Treasury considers that its continued enhanced engagements with Switzerland and Vietnam, as well as a more thorough assessment of developments in the global economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, will enable Treasury to better determine whether either of these economies intervened in currency markets in 2020 to prevent effective balance of payments adjustment or gain an unfair competitive advantage in trade. For Taiwan, Treasury will initiate enhanced engagement in accordance with the 2015 Act and expects that engagement will help Treasury to make the determination required under the 1988 Act for the period of review.
“No other major U.S. trading partner met the relevant 1988 or 2015 legislative criteria for currency manipulation or enhanced analysis during the review period. Treasury urged China to improve transparency regarding its foreign exchange intervention activities, the policy objectives of its exchange rate management regime, the relationship between the central bank and foreign exchange activities of the state-owned banks, and its activities in the offshore RMB market.
“’Treasury is working tirelessly to address efforts by foreign economies to artificially manipulate their currency values that put American workers at an unfair disadvantage,’ Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen said today.
“Treasury found that eleven economies warrant placement on Treasury’s ‘Monitoring List’ of major trading partners that merit close attention to their currency practices: China, Japan, Korea, Germany, Ireland, Italy, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Mexico. All except Ireland and Mexico were included in the December 2020 Report.
“Today’s Report is submitted to Congress pursuant to the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, 22 U.S.C. § 5305, and Section 701 of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, 19 U.S.C. § 4421.”
In prior posts, I have reviewed how Vietnam’s currency practices had resulted in a 301 investigation initiated by USTR (one of two, the other dealing with using illegally harvested timber) with a report issued in mid-January 2021, in the Commerce Department preliminarily finding currency practices of Vietnam were countervailable and in the December 2020 Treasury finding that Vietnam was manipulating its currency. See October 12, 2020, U.S. commences two investigations into Vietnam under Sec. 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended – on currency and on use of illegally harvested timber, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/10/12/u-s-commences-two-investigations-into-vietnam-under-sec-301-of-the-trade-act-of-1974-as-amended-on-currency-and-on-use-of-illegally-harvested-timber/; December 21, 2020, Vietnam and Switzerland found to be “currency manipulators” in latest U.S. Treasury semiannual report, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/21/vietnam-and-switzerland-found-to-be-currency-manipulators-in-latest-u-s-treasury-semiannual-report/; January 15, 2021, USTR releases report from Section 301 investigation on Vietnam’s currency valuation, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/15/ustr-releases-report-from-section-301-investigation-on-vietnams-currency-valuation/.
The current Treasury report (pages 3-4) flags the elements examined and what is different in this report versus the prior one for Switzerland and Vietnam.
“In this Report, Treasury has reviewed 20 major U.S. trading partners with bilateral goods trade with the United States of at least $40 billion annually against the thresholds Treasury has established for the three criteria in the 2015 Act:
“(1) Persistent, one-sided intervention in the foreign exchange market occurs when net purchases of foreign currency are conducted repeatedly, in at least 6 out of 12 months, and these net purchases total at least 2% of an economy’s gross domestic product (GDP) over a 12-month period.2
“(2) A material current account surplus is one that is at least 2% of GDP over a 12-month period.
“(3) A significant bilateral trade surplus with the United States is one that is at least $20 billion over a 12-month period.3
“In accordance with the 1988 Act, Treasury has also evaluated in this Report whether trading partners have manipulated the rate of exchange between their currency and the United States dollar for purposes of preventing effective balance of payments adjustments or gaining unfair competitive advantage in international trade.
“Because the standards and criteria in the 1988 Act and the 2015 Act are distinct, a trading partner could be found to meet the standards identified in one of the statutes without necessarily being found to meet the standards identified in the other. Section 2 provides further discussion of the distinctions between the 1988 Act and the 2015 Act.
“Treasury Conclusions Related to the 2015 Act
“Vietnam again exceeded the thresholds for all three criteria under the 2015 Act over the four quarters through December 2020. Treasury has updated its enhanced analysis of Vietnam in this Report. In early 2021, Treasury commenced enhanced bilateral engagement with Vietnam and is working with the Vietnamese authorities to develop a plan with specific actions to address the underlying causes of Vietnam’s currency undervaluation.
Switzerland again exceeded the thresholds for all three criteria under the 2015 Act over the four quarters through December 2020. Treasury has updated its enhanced analysis of Switzerland in this report. In early 2021, Treasury commenced enhanced bilateral engagement with Switzerland and is discussing with the Swiss authorities options to address the underlying causes of Switzerland’s external imbalances.
“Taiwan exceeded the thresholds for all three criteria under the 2015 Act over the four quarters through December 2020. Treasury has conducted enhanced analysis of Taiwan in this Report and will also commence enhanced bilateral engagement with Taiwan in accordance with the 2015 Act. The bilateral engagement will include urging the development of a plan with specific actions to address the underlying causes of Taiwan’s currency undervaluation.
“Taiwan has maintained a tightly managed floating exchange rate regime since the late 1970s. Although Taiwan has liberalized capital controls in recent decades, the central bank continues to actively intervene in the foreign exchange market. Over many years, these practices have resulted in a structurally undervalued exchange rate that has failed to adjust in the face of Taiwan’s persistently large current account surpluses. Although the New Taiwan Dollar (TWD) has appreciated modestly in nominal and real effective exchange rate terms over the past decade, the authorities’ foreign exchange purchases and other, less formal exchange rate management practices have slowed the pace and scale of external adjustment, preventing the TWD from fully reflecting macroeconomic fundamentals.
“Treasury Conclusions Related to the 1988 Act
“The 1988 Act requires Treasury to consider whether any economy manipulates the rate of exchange between its currency and the U.S. dollar for purposes of preventing effective balance of payments adjustments or gaining unfair competitive advantage in international trade. In the December 2020 Report, Treasury found that Switzerland and Vietnam each met the standards for currency manipulation for the four quarters through June 2020. For the four quarters ending in 2020, based on initial enhanced engagements with Vietnam and Switzerland under the 2015 Act, further analysis, and data, Treasury has determined that there is insufficient evidence to make a finding that either economy (or any other economy covered in the Report) manipulates its exchange rate for either of the purposes referenced in the 1988 Act. Nevertheless, consistent with the 1988 Act, Treasury considers that its continued enhanced engagements with Switzerland and Vietnam, as well as a more thorough assessment of developments in the global economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, will enable Treasury to better determine whether either of these economies intervened in currency markets in 2020 to prevent effective balance of payments adjustment or gain an unfair competitive advantage in trade. For Taiwan, Treasury will initiate enhanced engagement in accordance with the 2015 Act and expects that engagement will help Treasury to make the determination required under the 1988 Act for the period of review. Meaningful actions to address policy distortions and increase data transparency will be critical for making progress under these engagements. Treasury will also continue to consider whether economies that do not trigger enhanced engagement manipulate their currencies for the purposes referenced in the 1988 Act
“2 The Report covers data from the 12-month period ending in December 2020. These quantitative thresholds for the scale and persistence of intervention are considered sufficient on their own to meet this criterion. Other patterns of intervention, with lesser amounts or less frequent interventions, might also meet this criterion depending on the circumstances of the intervention.
“3 Treasury focuses in this Report on trade in goods only, as it has done in past Reports. The United States has a surplus in services trade with many economies in this Report, including China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Switzerland, and to a lesser extent, Taiwan and Vietnam. Taking into account services trade would reduce the bilateral trade surplus of these economies with the United States.”
The Trump Administration did not impose tariffs on Vietnam following the release of the Section 301 report in January leaving the decision on what action to take to the Biden Administration. President Biden’s U.S. Trade Representative, Ambassador Katherine Tai, met virtually with Vietnam Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh on April 1, 2021 and reviewed concerns re China’s currency practice as reviewed in the 301 investigation as well as illegal logging and other issues. See USTR Press Release, Readout of Ambassador Katherine Tai’s virtual meeting with Vietnam Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh. April 1, 2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/april/readout-ambassador-katherine-tais-virtual-meeting-vietnam-minister-industry-and-trade-tran-tuan-anh (“Ambassador Tai highlighted the Biden Administration’s concerns about currency practices covered in the ongoing Section 301 investigation. The ministers also discussed U.S. concerns on illegal timber practices, digital trade and agriculture.”). Thus, it is likely that the U.S. and Vietnam will work out bilaterally U.S. concerns on Vietnam’s currency versus imposing additional duties following the Section 301 report, at least at this time.
The first Department of Commerce investigation to look at currency as a countervailable subsidy for Vietnam made a preliminary affirmative determination. The final determination is not due until late May. See Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, C–552–829, Passenger Vehicle and Light Truck Tires From the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Preliminary Affirmative Countervailing Duty Determination and Alignment of Final Determination With Final Antidumping Duty Determination, 85 FR 71,607 (Nov. 10, 2020); Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, A–552–828, Passenger Vehicle and Light Truck Tires From the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Preliminary Affirmative Determination of Sales at Less Than Fair Value, Postponement of Final Determination, and Extension of Provisional Measures, 86 FR 504 (January 6, 2021)(final due within 135 days of the preliminary Federal Register). It is unclear what, if any, modification will be made to the countervailability of Vietnam’s currency in the context of the ongoing investigation based on the change in view of Vietnam by Treasury.
Currency misalignment whether intentional or not can have significant effects on trade flows. The U.S. has historically been quite concerned about misaligned currencies although Treasury historically preferred to work with other countries than label them currency manipulators. Early signals from the Biden Administration are that Treasury is reverting to a preference to work bilaterally with countries who actively intervene in currency markets and have an undervalued currency and large trade surplus in goods with the U.S. If so, Treasury will, as it did in the current report, find “insufficient evidence” for countries who satisfy the factual criteria under U.S. law to conclude such actions were for the purpose “of preventing effective balance of payments adjustments or gaining unfair competitive advantage in international trade.” While trading partners will undoubtedly prefer the Biden Administration’s apparent approach, the approach will be problematic for many U.S. industries and their workers and remove leverage to get correction of foreign government practices.
- Terence Stewart, former Managing Partner, Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart, and author of the blog, Current Thoughts on Trade.
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