Do customs duties compound non-tariff trade costs? Not in the US

For mathematical convenience, economists often assume iceberg trade costs when doing quantitative work. When tackling questions of trade policy, analysts must distinguish trade costs from import taxes. For the same reason that multiplicative iceberg trade costs are tractable, in these exercises it is easiest to model trade costs as the product of non-policy trade costs and ad valorem tariffs. For example, when studying NAFTA, Caliendo and Parro (2015) use the following formulation:

Caliendo and Parro (REStud, 2015), equation (3)

This assumption’s modeling convenience is obvious, but do tariff duties actually compound other trade costs? The answer depends on the importing country. Here’s Amy Porges, a trade attorney, answering the query on Quora:

Tariff rates in most countries are levied on the basis of CIF value (and then the CIF value + duties is used as the basis for border adjustments for VAT or indirect taxes). CIF value, as Mik Neville explains, includes freight cost. As a result, a 5% tariff rate results in a higher total amount of tariffs on goods that have higher freight costs (e.g. are shipped from more distant countries).

The US is one of the few countries where tariffs are applied on the basis of FOB value. Why? Article I, section 9 of the US Constitution provides that “No Preference shall be given by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another”, and this has been interpreted as requiring that the net tariff must be the same at every port. If a widget is loaded in Hamburg and shipped to NY, its CIF price will be different than if it were shipped to New Orleans or San Francisco. However the FOB price of the widget shipped from Hamburg will be the same regardless of destination.

Here’s a similar explanation from Neville Peterson LLP.

On page 460 of The Law and Policy of the World Trade Organization, we learn that Canada and Japan also take this approach.

Pursuant to Article 8.2, each Member is free either to include or to exclude from the customs value of imported goods: (1) the cost of transport to the port or place of importation; (2) loading, unloading, and handling charges associated with the transport to the port of place or importation; and (3) the cost of insurance. Note in this respect that most Members take the CIF price as the basis for determining the customs value, while Members such as the United States, Japan and Canada take the (lower) FOB price.

While multiplicative separability is a convenient modeling technique, in practice ad valorem tariff rates don’t multiply other trade costs for two of the three NAFTA members.