This is the third in a three-part series by Christine McDaniel for TradeVistas on how blockchain technologies will play an increasing role in international trade.
What’s Even Better Than No Tariffs?
Smoother and faster customs procedures could boost global trade volumes and economic output even more than if governments were to eliminate the remaining tariffs throughout the world – up to six times according to an estimate by the World Bank.
Blockchain is a promising technology that, if widely adopted by shippers and customs agencies, could reduce the current mounds of paperwork and costs associated with import and export licenses, cargo and shipping documents, and customs declarations.
Below the Snazzy Surface of Trade Policy
Trade agreements work when the people who want to buy and sell across borders can use them. Engaging in international trade transactions requires diving into the rules and regulations of international customs processes. Businesses either have someone in-house to handle this or they hire companies whose business it is to manage these processes.
Moving goods through the customs process means preparing the relevant paperwork for import or export at each step in the process. The paperwork at each step must be confirmed and verified, sometimes separately by different people. These procedures — in rich and poor countries alike — can be complex, opaque and laden with inefficiencies that raise costs and cause delays at best. At worst, less automated processes can leave the door open to corruption and security breaches.
Trade policymakers have increasingly focused on simplifying and modernizing customs procedures — a policy approach commonly known as “trade facilitation.” Nearly all modern free trade agreements have a trade facilitation chapter and the World Trade Organization has an entire Trade Facilitation Agreement devoted to eliminating red tape at national borders to streamline the global movement of goods.
Too Much Paperwork
The international shipping industry carries 90 percent of the world’s trade in goods but is surprisingly dependent on paper documentation. In a New York Times article, Danish shipping company Maersk commented that tracking containers is straightforward. It’s the “mountains of paperwork that go with each container” that slow down the process.
A shipping container can spend significant time just waiting for someone to cross the t’s and dot the i’s on the paperwork. Delays pose real costs to traders and represent a deadweight loss of resources that could have been spent elsewhere in a more productive manner. The cost of handling documentation is so high that it can be even more expensive than the cost of transporting the actual shipping containers.
Beginning in 2014, Maersk began tracking specific goods such as avocados and cut flowers to determine the true weight of compliance costs and intermediation. The company discovered that a single container moving from Africa to Europe required nearly 200 communications and the verification and approval of more than 30 organizations involved in customs, tax and health-related matters. Maersk’s office in Kenya has storage rooms filled from floor to ceiling with paper records dating back to 2014.
Inefficiencies in customs processes create chain reactions, extending the costs and inefficiencies throughout the transportation industry and all the way to the consumer. In just one example, as many as 1,500 trucks might be lined up on a given day on both sides of the critical border crossing between Bangladesh and India. Many trucks wait up to five days before crossing. Examples like this are not hard to find in developing countries.
Delays for perishable items are painfully costly for traders, but also for consumers. Economist Lan Liu and economist and horticultural scientist Chengyan Yue examined lettuce and apple imports in 183 countries. They determined that reducing delays from two days to one would increase lettuce imports in those countries by around 35 percent, or an additional 504,714 tons of lettuce, increasing in world consumer welfare by $2.1 billion. The same improvement would increase apple imports by 15 percent, enabling shipment of an additional 731,937 tons and increasing consumer welfare by around $1.1 billion.
Complexity Makes Corruption Easier
Fraud constitutes a major threat to the customs process. Fraudulent behavior can involve the forgery of bills of lading and other export documentation such as certifications of origin. A fraudulent shipper could claim “lost” goods, underreport the cargo, and steal the difference. Or a shipper could misrepresent the amount or quality of shipped goods and pay less than the required amount for their imports.
Fraud can be perpetrated by a shipper, by the receiver of goods, a customs official, or an interloping third party. The greater the complexity of customs procedures and the more discretion granted to customs officials, the more likely corruption will be present at the border, creating both risk and costs for companies working to avoid corruption.
Indeed, corruption acts as a “hidden tariff” for companies and reduces legitimate customs revenue for governments. The World Customs Organization estimates the loss of revenue caused by customs-related corruption to be at least $2 billion.
Blockchain Makes Corruption Harder
Blockchain is a digital distributed ledger that is secure by design. Each transaction in the shipping process is uploaded to the chain if (and only if) it is agreed upon by the other users. It is nearly impossible to make a fraudulent claim or edit past transactions without the approval of the other users in the network.
Blockchain could discourage corruption by simplifying procedures and reducing the number of government offices and officials involved in each transaction. Each transaction can also be audited in real time, allowing users to see exactly when and where disputes arise and exactly what the discrepancies are.
This level of transparency enables participants in the network to hold each other accountable for mistakes or purposeful deception. Though blockchain does not prevent false information from being entered into the system, it does reduce opportunities for the original information to be corrupted by intermediaries involved in the shipping process. Rather than parties relying on the good faith of shippers and customs agents, blockchain greater assurance of the integrity of each transactional record.
Blockchain technology in customs and border-crossing procedures could also be used to prevent circumvention and transshipment—that is, when shippers send goods to a neighboring country before the destination country in an attempt to avoid tariffs on goods from the real country of origin. The importer ends up liable for duties and penalties. (For example, some exporters from China are now sending finished products through Vietnam to avoid new U.S. tariffs on goods from China.)
All In on Blockchain?
The use of blockchain in customs processing is still nascent. An advisory group for U.S. Customs and Border Protection is broadly exploring the role of emerging technologies like blockchain.
IBM and Maersk have partnered to demonstrate how blockchain can simplify shipping. Their plan would allow all parties involved in a container’s shipment to observe and track the container from inception to endpoint. For example, after a customs agent verifies the contents of a container, they can immediately upload information to the blockchain with a unique digital fingerprint that visible to all other users. The ease of access to information throughout the blockchain system reduces time-consuming correspondence among the parties.
For all this to work, customs agencies, shippers and suppliers will have to cooperate to integrate blockchain technology along the supply chain and across borders. By reducing time and cost, blockchain could be a boon to the majority of honest global shippers. By providing greater accuracy and transparency, blockchain would be a bust for dishonest brokers who manipulate the current inefficiencies in customs procedures to commit fraud or gain from corruption.
Christine McDaniel a former senior economist with the White House Council of Economic Advisers and deputy assistant Treasury secretary for economic policy, is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.