International Trade:

Options for Congressional Consideration to Improve U.S. Trade Preference Programs

GAO-10-262T: Published: Nov 17, 2009. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2009.

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Loren Yager
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U.S. trade preference programs promote economic development in poorer nations by providing duty-free export opportunities in the United States. The Generalized System of Preferences, Caribbean Basin Initiative, Andean Trade Preference Act, and African Growth and Opportunity Act unilaterally reduce U.S. tariffs for many products from over 130 countries. However, two of these programs expire partially or in full this year, and Congress is exploring options as it considers renewal. This testimony describes the growth in preference program imports, identifies policy trade-offs, and summarizes the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendations and options suggested by a panel of experts on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The testimony is based on studies issued in September 2007, March 2008, and August 2009. For those studies, GAO analyzed trade data, reviewed trade literature and program documents, interviewed U.S. officials, did fieldwork in nine countries, and convened a panel of experts.

Total U.S. preference imports grew from $20 billion in 1992 to $110 billion in 2008, with most of this growth taking place since 2000. The increases from preference program countries primarily reflect the addition of new eligible products, increased petroleum imports from some African countries, and the rapid growth of exports from countries such as India, Thailand, and Brazil. Preference programs give rise to three critical policy trade-offs. First, opportunities for beneficiary countries to export products duty free must be balanced against U.S. industry interests. Some products of importance to developing countries, notably agriculture and apparel, are ineligible by statute as a result. Second, some developing countries, such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, are not included in U.S. regional preference programs; however, there is concern that they are already competitive in marketing apparel to the United States and that giving them greater duty-free access could harm the apparel industry in Africa and elsewhere. Third, Congress faces a trade-off between longer preference program renewals, which may encourage investment, and shorter renewals, which may provide leverage to encourage countries to act in accordance with U.S. interests such as trade liberalization. GAO reported in March 2008 that preference programs have proliferated and become increasingly complex, which has contributed to a lack of systematic review. Moreover, we found that there was little to no reporting on the impact of these programs. In addition, GAO solicited options from a panel of experts in June 2009 for improving the competitiveness of the textile and apparel sector in AGOA countries. Options they suggested included aligning trade capacity building with trade preference programs, modifying rules of origin to facilitate joint production among trade preference program beneficiaries and free trade partners, and creating non-punitive and voluntary incentives to encourage the use of inputs from the United States or its trade preference partners to stimulate investment in beneficiary countries.