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Are Customs Records Consistent Across Countries? Evidence from the U.S. and Colombia

C.J. Krizan (), James Tybout, Zi Wang and Yingyan Zhao

Working Papers from U.S. Census Bureau, Center for Economic Studies

Abstract: In many countries, official customs records include identifying information on the exporting and importing firms involved in each shipment. This information allows researchers to study international business networks, offshoring patterns, and the micro-foundations of aggregate trade flows. It also provides the government with a basis for tariff assessments at the border. However, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that the shipment-level information recorded by the exporting country is consistent with the shipment-level information recorded by the importing country. And to the extent that there are discrepancies, it is not clear how prevalent they are or what form they take. In this paper we explore these issues, both to enhance our understanding of the limitations of customs records, and to inform future discussions of possible revisions in the way they are collected. Specifically, we match U.S.-bound export shipments that appear in Colombian Customs records (DIAN) with their counterparts in the US Customs records (LFTTD): U.S. import shipments from Colombia. Several patterns emerge. First, differences in the coverage of the two countries customs records lead to significant discrepancies in the official bilateral trade flow statistics of these two countries: the DIAN database records 8 percent fewer transactions than the LFTTD database over the sample period, and the average export shipment size in the DIAN is roughly 4 percent smaller than the corresponding import shipment size in the LFTTD. These discrepancies are not due to difference in minimum shipment sizes and they are not particular to a few sectors, though they are more common among small shipments and they evolve over time. Second, if we rely exclusively on firms’ names and addresses, ignoring other shipment characteristics (value, product code, etc.), we are able to match 85 percent of the value of U.S. imports from Colombia in our LFTTD sample with particular Colombian suppliers in the DIAN. Further, fully 97 percent of the value of Colombian exports to the U.S. can be mapped onto particular importers in the U.S. LFTTD. Third, however, match rates at the shipment level within buyer-seller pairs are low. That is, while buyers and sellers can be paired up fairly accurately, only 25-30 percent of the individual transactions in the customs records of the two countries can be matched using fuzzy algorithms at reasonable tolerance levels. Fourth, the manufacturer ID (MANUF_ID) that appears in the LFTTD implies there are roughly twice as many Colombian exporters as actually appear in the DIAN. And similar comments apply to an analogous MANUF_ID variable constructed from importer name and address information in the DIAN. Hence studies that treat each MANUF_ID value as a distinct firm are almost surely overstating the number of foreign firms that engage in trade with the U.S. by a substantial amount. Finally, we conclude that if countries were to require that exporters report standardized shipment identifiers—either invoice numbers or bill of lading/air waybill numbers—it would be far easier to track individual transactions and to identify international discrepancies in reporting.

Pages: 36 pages
Date: 2020-03
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-int
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