The Case of the Missing Exports: What Trade Discrepancies Mean for Anticorruption Efforts

In 2017, the Republic of Georgia sent $272 million in exports to its neighbor, Azerbaijan. The same year, Azerbaijan reported receiving $74 million—that’s not a typo—in imports from Georgia. Goods worth $198 million seemingly disappeared before they reached Azerbaijani customs. The gap is a big deal. Azerbaijan taxes imports just above 5% on average (weighted for trade), which means its treasury missed out on collecting roughly $10 million in tariffs—0.1% of all government spending in that year—from just a single trading partner.

Many factors could explain the gap (see, for example, here, here, and here). Shippers might have rerouted goods to other destinations, the two countries’ customs offices might value goods differently, or the customs offices could have erred in reporting results or converting them to dollars. But one reason Azerbaijan’s reported imports are so low—not only here, but systemically across trade partners and years—is corruption and associated tariff evasion. Many traders likely undervalue and/or underreport their imports when going through Azerbaijani customs, and the sheer magnitude of the trade gap suggests the complicity or collusion of the authorities. The corruption involved might be petty (e.g., an importer bribing a customs officer to look the other way, or a customs officer pocketing the tax and leaving it off the books) or grand (e.g., a politician with a side business using her influence to shield imports from inspection; see here). A similar dynamic might also be at work in exporting countries: companies may undervalue exports to limit their income tax liability, possibly paying bribes to avoid audits.

Though Azerbaijan may be an extreme case, it is not unique. Economists have examined these export gaps (sometimes called “mirror statistics”) and have found similar discrepancies in, for example, Hong Kong’s exports to China, China’s exports to the United States, and Cambodia’s imports from all trading partners. Most recently, economists Derek Kellenberg and Arik Levinson compared trade data across almost all countries over an eleven-year time period, finding that “corruption plays an important role in the degree of misreports for both importers and exporters.” For lower-income countries, Professors Kellenberg and Levinson showed a positive relationship between a country’s level of perceived corruption, as measured by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), and its underreporting of imports. The authors also showed a strong positive relationship between perceived corruption and the underreporting of exports across all countries.

Mirror statistics are an imperfect measure of customs corruption, to be sure, but they can serve two useful purposes in fighting this sort of corruption, and anticorruption reformers should pay more attention to this type of data. Continue reading

The Global Community Must Take Further Steps to Combat Trade-Based Money Laundering

Global trade has quadrupled in the last 25 years, and with this growth has come the increased risk of trade-based money laundering. Criminals often use the legitimate flow of goods across borders—and the accompanying movement of funds—to relocate value from one jurisdiction to another without attracting the attention of law enforcement. As an example, imagine a criminal organization that wants to move dirty money from China to Canada, while disguising the illicit origins of that money. The organization colludes with (or sets up) an exporter in Canada and an importer in China. The exporter then contracts to ship $2 million worth of goods to China and bills the importer for the full $2 million, but, crucially, only ships goods worth $1 million. Once the bill is paid, $1 million has been transferred across borders and a paper trail makes the money seem legitimate. The process works in reverse as well: the Canadian exporter might ship $1 million worth of goods to the Chinese importer but only bill the importer $500,000. When those goods are sold on the open market, the additional $500,000 is deposited in an account in China for the benefit of the criminal organization. Besides these classic over- and under-invoicing techniques, there are other forms of trade-based money laundering, including invoicing the same shipment multiple times, shipping goods other than those invoiced, simply shipping nothing at all while issuing a fake invoice, or even more complicated schemes (see here and here for examples).

As governments have cracked down on traditional money-laundering schemes—such as cash smuggling and financial system manipulation—trade-based money laundering has become increasingly common. Indeed, the NGO Global Financial Integrity estimates that trade misinvoicing has become “the primary means for illicitly shifting funds between developing and advanced countries.” Unfortunately, trade-based money laundering is notoriously difficult to detect, in part because of the scale of global trade: it’s easy to hide millions of dollars in global trading flows worth trillions. (Catching trade-based money laundering has been likened to searching for a bad needle in a stack of needles.) Furthermore, the deceptions involved in trade-based money laundering can be quite subtle: shipping paperwork may be consistent with sales contracts and with the actual shipped goods, so the illicit value transfer will remain hidden unless investigators have a good idea of the true market value of the goods. Using hard-to-value goods, such as fashionable clothes or used cars, can make detection nearly impossible. Moreover, sophisticated criminals render these schemes even more slippery by commingling illicit and legitimate business ventures, shipping goods through third countries, routing payments through intermediaries, and taking advantage of lax customs regulations in certain jurisdictions, especially free trade zones (see here and here). In a world where few shipping containers are physically inspected (see here, here, and here), total failure to detect trade-based money laundering is “just a decimal point away.”

The international community can and should be doing more to combat trade-based money laundering, starting with the following steps:

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Why the WTO Should Tackle Border Corruption

When a state systematically fails to suppress bribery in its customs service, should that be an actionable violation of international trade law? More broadly, to what extent do anticorruption provisions have a place in the law of the World Trade Organization? In a 2014 post on this blog, Colette van der Ven squarely addressed these questions and concluded that the answer is no: the WTO, in her view, is not well suited to handling complaints of corruption.

I disagree with Colette’s well-reasoned analysis. While she is right to point out substantial challenges to grappling with anticorruption through the WTO, these challenges are surmountable—and the importance of a WTO remedy counsels in favor of surmounting them. Continue reading

Incorporating Anticorruption Measures in the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA)

On April 2, 2019, The Gambia became the 22nd country to ratify the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which was the minimum threshold to approve the deal among the 55-member states of the African Union (AU). The AfCFTA aims to provide a single continental market for goods and services, as well as a customs union with free movement of capital and business travelers. Although the agreement will enter into force one week from tomorrow (on May 30, 2019), the negotiations for the Protocols and other important matters such as tariff schedules, rules of origin, and sector commitments are still being negotiated. However, once the treaty is fully in force, it is expected to cover a market of 1.2 billion people and combined gross domestic product of $2.5 trillion, which would make it the world’s largest free trade area since the creation of the World Trade Organization. This could be a game-changer for Africa. Indeed, the U.N. Economic Commission on Africa predicts that the AfCFTA could increase intra-African trade by as much as 52.3%, and that this percentage will double when tariff barriers are eliminated. The AfCFTA promises to provide substantial opportunities for industrialization, diversification, and high-skilled employment. And the AU’s larger goal is to utilize the AfCFTA to create a single common African market.

Yet there are a number of challenges that could thwart the effectiveness of this new treaty in promoting free trade and economic development. Corruption is one of those challenges. International indexes indicate that Sub-Saharan Africa is perceived as the most corrupt region in the world, with North Africa not much better. The current version of the treaty, however, does not address corruption directly. It should. Continue reading

Post-TPP Withdrawal: Loss of a Trade-Corruption Milestone?

As promised, President Trump removed the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement soon after he took office in January. The move withdrew the world’s leading economy from the largest regional trade deal ever proposed. It also represented a major step back from what looked like a breakthrough in linking anticorruption and trade. As I discussed in a previous post, the TPP’s anticorruption chapter was an important step towards inclusion of anticorruption commitments in trade deals, making the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP a step backwards for the decades-old movement to incorporate anticorruption provisions in trade agreements.

Yet Trump’s move was not the end of the TPP negotiations. Nor should it be the end of championing an increased role for anticorruption and transparency in trade deals. With the TPP having reached the final stages of negotiation, its Transparency and Anticorruption Chapter can provide an outline for future trade deals that might provide further opportunities for trade-corruption linkage. As outlined in a previous post, the TPP’s chapter on anticorruption made several strides forward, including obligations to join UNCAC and respect other anticorruption instruments. What’s more, the anticorruption provisions were to be made enforceable in trade dispute resolution tribunals (though, as Danielle has previously written, corruption can already support certain actions in trade dispute arbitration). Looking at the strides forward in the draft TPP, there are three key avenues through which the Transparency and Anticorruption Chapter can continue to strengthen international trade deals.

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A Trade-Anticorruption Breakthrough?: The Trans-Pacific Partnership’s Transparency and Anticorruption Chapter

The full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), released earlier this month, is already generating plenty of discussion. One of the proposed agreement’s most striking features is the full chapter on transparency and anticorruption, Chapter 26. The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) had earlier stated that its objectives in negotiating the TPP included addressing transparency, accountability, and corruption; at the time I thought this was simply a negotiating ploy or marketing strategy, but it looks like I was wrong. As USTR’s summary of the “good governance” steps of Chapter 26 correctly notes, the TPP “includes the strongest anti-corruption and transparency standards of any trade agreement.” Indeed, Chapter 26–which appears to modeled in part on draft language that Transparency International had proposed for inclusion in a different trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership–could mark an important and unprecedented step towards using trade agreements to promoting and harmonize international anticorruption efforts.

Here are a few points that are or could be particularly important features of Chapter 26:

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Should the TPP Address Corruption? If So, How?

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) says it is trying to include anticorruption pledges in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. According to USTR, it not only wants “commitments to promote transparency, participation, and accountability” in trade issues (commitments USTR claims it has already had some success securing recently), but also more general “commitments discouraging corruption . . . among public officials.” It’s not entirely clear what USTR means, particularly with respect to this latter suggestion that it is going to push for more general anticorruption pledges in the TPP. Maybe it doesn’t mean much – it might just be feel-good rhetoric, with little connection to what’s actually going on in the closed-door TPP negotiations. But suppose that USTR is sincere, and that it genuinely hopes to include some sort of anticorruption language in the final TPP deal. Is this a good idea? If so, what sorts of anticorruption commitments would be appropriate in a mega-regional trade agreement like the TPP?

The idea of incorporating anticorruption measures into trade deals is hardly novel. (See this panel summary for some high-level background). Last year, Colette’s post on this blog recommended adopting Transparency International’s suggested anticorruption measures for the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (the T-TIP), though she also opposed addressing corruption through the multilateral WTO regime. Other commentators and civil society groups have pressed for the incorporation of anticorruption measures in other regional free trade agreements (for example, see here and here). With respect to the TPP, these prior discussions suggest several considerations that USTR negotiators should keep in mind if they are serious about pushing for more anticorruption language in this agreement: Continue reading