E-Commerce Logistics Demands, COVID-19 Empower Ocean Alliances

Although there is still a slim chance that the fourth quarter produces some rate compression – or a downturn in the need for e-commerce logistics. When freight levels are at an all-time high, there is little motivation for the three major shipping alliances to drop rates significantly during the remaining calendar year.

Shippers looking to 2021 would be wise to consider contingency budgeting – especially if you are a major importer competing in a supply chain environment that continues to be affected by ongoing growth in online sales and e-commerce logistics.

Likewise, there has never been a more important time to reassess your entire import supply chain to validate compliance with evolving trade regulations. Emerging pinch points in the international supply chain are elevating risk for shippers who must be prepared to address traditional risk areas that carry a financial impact.

As we have stated since early 2019, contingency planning must be the part of your monthly and sometimes weekly business plans. Diversification in foreign sourcing has never been more critical, particularly in an election season that has pushed global trade forward as individual candidates differentiating issue.  

Close review of the international transportation landscape can lay the groundwork for developing strategies that mitigate that risk heading into 2021.

Alliances Take Control Amid E-Commerce Boom

Consumer behaviors are shifting the traditional retail models, and the unchecked growth of e-commerce is keeping the global supply chain packed with product. 

Credit some of that international freight volume to the rapid production and movement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in response to a global health crisis. At the same time, retail supply chains have been irreversibly impacted by the functional success of e-commerce. Until some of the demand cycles in both realms stabilize, predicting ocean shipping rates will be a challenge.

More importantly, the three major shipping alliances response to COVID-19 demands the attention of organizations that rely on global commerce and e-commerce logistics. Vessel operators have shown remarkable discipline by matching supply to demand volatility.

During the first half of the year, the three alliances (2M, Ocean Alliance and THE Alliance) constricted supply by canceling dozens of scheduled voyages with the intent to remove excess capacity. However the net effect was scarcity of space, i.e. rates were increased monthly or bi-weekly and started to build. Representing 21 ocean vessel operators and roughly 10 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU), these alliances have maintained rate discipline as the retail supply chain began to open in July in August. 

In the past, increased demand for service and the prospect of rate increase motivated operators to add sailings. With a strategic approach that ensures vessels are filled before others are added, ocean carriers keep upward pressure on rates that are roughly 80 percent higher in a year-over-year comparison to 2019.

This strategy supports a more dependable service for international shippers as it creates more reliability for in-country logistics operators, but if the alliances maintain this discipline, plan for rates to stay elevated. Solid bookings will continue through October and contingency budgeting should be a focus for major importers.

Persisting Pinch Points Create Risk

As we approach what has traditionally been a calm period at the end of the e-commerce logistics peak season, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are at capacity. Historically higher volume for this time of year will undoubtedly spur downstream challenges deep into Q4 and into 2021. 

Finding available chasses to support container movements will continue to be a problem into December. As these containers and chasses (to a lesser degree) move in country and on the rail, it is hard to balance the need for equipment during a disruption-filled year like we’ve had. Vessels hoping to expedite movement for the last wave of peak season freight to North America are now waiting for containers to come back to port so that have something to load and ship. 

We know there will be an end to this kind of imbalance, but we have not gotten there yet.

The timing has never been greater for organizations to assess their entire import and export supply chain. Look for places to increase efficiency. Identify pinch points that elevate risk that emerges in times of global volatility. At this point, organizations should have complete awareness of the supply chain challenges arising during COVID-19 and address their preparedness for the next global disruption, both economically and around traditional risk areas. 

Trade Regulations and Tariff Battles Require Eye on Compliance

Plaintiffs representing a diverse set of industries are suing the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) for relief from China 301 tariffs. The argument: tariffs implemented without sufficient advanced notice caused unfair and improper financial harm to their organizations. Many shippers have been negatively impacted, some to a crippling point, and they are looking for any dollars they can get.

These organizations – including some of the world’s largest brands – will not likely get complete relief, but their actions demonstrate that businesses will not sit idle when trade laws are put in place, as they argue, without warning.

Meanwhile, implementation of the trade regulations intended to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement continues to carry some unexpected consequences.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is having the largest effect on businesses close to the automotive supply chain, but many companies were lulled into thinking there would be limited changes in the new agreement. Updated documentation is required to execute cross border entries. Make sure to review your international trade compliance processes to avoid this type of needless risk caused by what seems like a simple change in regulations. 

From NAFTA to USMCA: All Trade Agreements Are Not Created Equal

Furthermore, many companies focused on overcoming operational challenges of the pandemic have been able to delay response to a regulatory action that’s been outside the spotlight.

Until now.

On July 1, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) replaces the existing requirements of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with an exception for certain automotive products that will have a three-year transitional period. Many elements of NAFTA were retained in the new agreement; however, there are distinctions in the USMCA that require review and consideration by trade participants to ensure they effectively manage compliance during this program transition. According to a recent survey, there appears to be some confusion among supply chain managers on how to implement these changes and mitigate non-compliance risk to maintain company profitability.

Importers’ goods that qualified under NAFTA may also be eligible for USMCA; however, there are subtle changes that may impact those determinations. USMCA due diligence should be conducted by all trade participants as a demonstration of compliance, for all companies participating in North American trade between the United States, Mexico and/or Canada.

5 Differences Between NAFTA and USMCA

  1. Importers will no longer be required to complete a formal NAFTA certification document. A certificate of origin may now be completed based on information provided by the producer. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is not mandating a standard format for certificates of origin as long as they contain all of the required data elements. A best practice is to have the certification in hand before making a claim. Previous NAFTA certificates and certification documentation under USMCA must be kept for a minimum of five years.
  2. The de minimis threshold increases. NAFTA’s threshold of 7 percent for FOB value increases under USMCA to 10 percent. The de minimis for textiles and apparel is different.
  3. The terms of the USMCA will remain in effect for 16 years, after which time the parties can choose to revisit and/or renegotiate those terms, or withdraw from the agreement altogether. The agreement is also subject to a review every six years, at which point the United States, Mexico, and Canada can decide whether or not to extend the agreement if they feel doing so would be beneficial.
  4. Merchandise Process Fee (MPF) refunds will not be made on post-importation claims. An importer who fails to claim preferential tariff treatment at the time of entry will not be able to recoup their MPF through a post-summary correction or reconciliation later.
  5. Changes were made to the Rule of Origin for various goods (e.g., manufactured goods, pharmaceuticals, healthcare products, textiles and apparel, agricultural goods, etc.). However there are significant changes within the automotive sector concerning eligibility based on regional value content. In general, USMCA now requires the total North American-based content of a vehicle to equal 75 percent (up from 62.5 percent). USMCA also requires that 70 percent of a vehicle’s steel and aluminum must originate in North America.

How should importers prepare for the USMCA transition to ensure compliance?

Importers should carefully review their imported goods to ensure they understand the new rules of origin and can verify that they qualify under the new agreement. Binding rulings that determine parameters of origin determination under NAFTA will be invalid, and a new binding ruling will be required for USMCA.

We also recommend performing a comprehensive review of imported goods through internal or external compliance means to demonstrate USMCA Compliance due diligence. For example, there may be cases where goods did not qualify under the terms of NAFTA but may now qualify under USMCA.

And above all else, it is imperative that importers maintain a proper record-keeping system. This means you must document where all of your goods originate, and you must have on file a detailed description of your sourcing, production and determination process that clearly defines that the goods qualify.

Our Experience is Your Compass

It is a grave error for importers to assume their goods qualify under USMCA, even if they were NAFTA eligible.

To help guide you through the necessary process to determine whether or not your products do meet USMCA rules, Transportation Insight’s team of international compliance consultants are ready to help you outline and execute a personalized scope of work plan to ensure your USMCA program is in full compliance.

While your focus today on maximum supply chain efficiency can improve your ability to meet arising market demands, a partner with expertise in international trade compliance brings you peace of mind – and so much more. We take over the work of helping you navigate through the change from NAFTA to USMCA so you can progress toward global supply chain mastery.

Make sure your trade compliance processes are updated to protect your business financial risk that emerges during the implementation of complex new regulations. Contact one of our global trade compliance experts today for a free consultation.