Customs Changes from Trade Tariffs

Trump’s trade talks have created a nervous atmosphere for manufacturers, suppliers, and freight companies. Unsure as to whether there will be an all-out trade war between the United States and China (not to mention other trade squabbles with long-standing trade partners such as Canada and Mexico) many in the industry are wringing their hands and wondering what’s going to happen next. Given the fact that these new tariffs could have a tremendous impact on the global supply chain, we could see a dramatic shift in business and growth in the next few years. 

With tariffs on the horizon, importers and shippers will need to increase the level of their continuous bond

One of the upcoming changes that will affect U.S. based importers is a change the importers probably aren’t even aware of. With tariffs on the horizon, importers and shippers will need to increase the level of their continuous bond. A continuous bond is set at a defined percentage (a minimum of 10 percent) of all duties, taxes, and fees that an importer is expected to pay over a 12 month period, and is required for all companies importing goods into the United States. If an importer is expecting to pay $1 million in duties, taxes, and fees over the span of a year, that importer would need to have a continuous bond of $100,000 in place to avoid detention and demurrage of freight. While the bond will self-renew so long as payment is received, failing to maintain a sufficient bond, less than the prerequisite 10 percent, can hinder an importers’ ability to retrieve their cargo from U.S. ports. This can also result in demurrage charges and fees as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the ability to redirect shipments that lack the sufficient bond to hold them.  

Increased Enforcement from the CBP 

Insufficient bonds can be rendered inactive by the CBP, requiring importers to apply for single transaction bonds which are more considerably more expensive as they take in the total cost of value of the shipment in addition to the duties, taxes, and fees. These are more designed for infrequent importers as they can be ruinously more expensive than a continuous bond. There is already evidence that the CBP is stepping up the watch for importers with insufficient bond levels for their shipments, having tripled the amount of notices sent out to importers during the course of June and July.  

This will likely create a hardship for small and mid-sized importers as many companies are having to reassess their exposure to duties.

Colleen Clarke, VP of Roanoke Insurance Group, which provides transportation-related surety bonds and insurance for the international trade community, also currently serves as president of the International Trade Surety Association, said that in July CBP sent 183 letters to importers notifying them they had insufficient continuous bonds, a sign that enforcement of the bond levels is rising. In the months prior, that number had been around 50 to 60, she said. “It is trending up, and certainly in the next few months it will trend higher,” Clarke said. This is especially true when considering the pending tariffs that are due to be assessed on almost $200 billion on imports from China as the next round of the Section 301 tariffs. This will likely create a hardship for small and mid-sized importers as many companies are having to reassess their exposure to duties. In many cases, an importer is having to increase their bond level by 20 to 100 times what it currently is in order to stay compliant with the CBP.  

Importers Need to be Mindful of Bond Levels 

From an assessment earlier this year, Sections 232 and 301 tariffs that apply to steel and aluminum respectively, will also apply to certain imports from China and increase the amount of duties payable. This can have a rather profound impact on importers in a myriad of ways. “On the steel tariff, we had one bond that went from $200,000 to $5 million,” Clarke says. “Another steel importer had a $200,000 bond and we have estimated they’ll now need an $11 million bond.” Higher bonds inevitably mean higher continuous bond premiums, which is a straight cost increase for importers. 

Harder Times for Smaller Companies 

The more serious consequence is that importers will need some type of collateral to stake against the bond, usually in the form of a letter of credit, when the total bond amount increases as substantially as it’s going to. Pulling a larger letter of credit can greatly cut into the finances of small and mid-sized importers. But potentially more impactful is that importers often need to provide some collateral — generally a letter of credit — when the bond amount increases so substantially. That increased bank exposure can significantly hamper the finances of a small-to-mid-sized importer. “It’s not just the bond premium, which is nominal in relation to the bond amount, it’s the underwriting and potential collateral requirements,” Clarke said. “It takes away from their available line of credit with their banks, and that might inhibit their ability to grow. That could happen.” 

Premium increases aren’t necessarily based on the increased bond requirements.

Fortunately, premium increases aren’t necessarily based on the increased bond requirements. If a bond requirement increases 20-fold, that doesn’t necessarily mean that premiums will be 20 times higher. The premium rate can fluctuate, sometimes going lower, and sometimes higher, it’s all dependent on the surety, the one honoring the bond, and the surety’s assessment of an importer’s ability to pay. That ultimately goes back to whether or not the importer has a strong enough balance sheet or the cash on hand to back an increased bond.  

Importers are Generally Unprepared or Simply Unaware

Another issue to consider is that there are many companies that trade with countries like Canada and Mexico, where there is an existing free trade agreement. In these situations, companies are maintaining the absolute minimum required a continuous bond level, $50,000. Even for companies that have their imports labeled as duty, tax, and fee free are still subject to the $50,000 minimum bond issued by the CBP.  

Where this gets more complicated is that many of these importers have been operating on the minimum bond and without duties, taxes, and customs fees are now staring down the barrel of multimillion-dollar bonds that will have to be calculated at higher duty rates every time a new tariff is added to the list. Given that the Trump administration is also putting Canada and Mexico in the mix to be tariffed, this will create considerably more expenses for these importers.  

Customs Brokers Have a Part to Play 

Customs brokers will be playing a key role during these uncertain times. As sureties are more likely to work with a broker, rather than directly with the importer, it will be the broker who alerts their clients about the potential for an insufficient bond. Proactive sureties and brokers do this preemptively, especially as many importers aren’t necessarily mindful about maintaining bonds themselves. There are other issues in which a broker will be a boon to importers. Bond requirements will start to stack for importers that bring in goods that are affected by anti-dumping or similar duty fees. These particular cases can take over a year to decide which means that multiple bonds can accumulate during this time which ties up importers assets and puts them at a great risk until the cases are settled.  

 The bond issue is undoubtedly going to get worse before it gets better.

The bond issue is undoubtedly going to get worse before it gets better, especially in the coming months as importers will have to determine whether or not the additional $200 billion round of tariffs on Chinese manufactured goods will affect their business. This is in addition to the $16 billion worth of Chinese goods that are already under tariff enforcement.  

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